Frequently Asked Questions

Q&A

Here are our top 3 frequently asked

Take ACTION for Orcas

What can I do to help the Southern Resident Killer Whales?
The first thing you can do is to become a Member of the Center for Whale Research.
Or you can make a donation.

Either way, your financial support will help keep the Orca Survey going for 100 years. Our goal is to follow and study the Southern Resident Killer Whale population for 100 years, covering the lifespan of one generation. Not only will the time period of this study be unprecedented for marine mammals, it will be the first of its kind. The knowledge we have gained in the first 43 years of study has helped us learn much about the whales, and has been crucial for conservation and management. Whether or not you choose to support CWR financially, please visit our Orca Conservation page to learn what you can do at home and at work to help protect the Southern Resident Killer Whales' living environment and enhance their quality of life.

How can I become a whale biologist?

This is probably our most frequently asked question! Many, many people e-mail us asking what they can do to study killer whales (orcas) in the wild. The truth is, that in the worldwide there are really only a dozen or so people who study wild killer whales. Studying these animals in the wild is logistically difficult and often cost prohibitive. With the exception of the Southern Residents, most killer whale populations are found in remote areas and are not seen regularly. Before you decide that you want to study killer whales, you should ask yourself two important questions: 1. Why killer whales? 2. What about killer whales do I want to study? The reason for these questions is that anyone can claim they want to study killer whales, and many do. But if there are only a dozen or so scientists studying wild killer whales, then competition for jobs must be pretty high. It is far more useful and practical to have a specialty with a specific background in a science such as genetics, ecology, or toxicology, and apply that to killer whales, than just to say you want to study them. Find a way to set yourself apart from others wanting to study the same animals as their profession. Talk with people who are already doing what you want to do. You will find that there are many different paths to take. Then you should try to volunteer or intern, and get as much experience as you can, and you're on your way!

Does CWR offer internships or volunteer opportunities?

This is the second most popular question we're asked by aspiring marine biologists. The short answer is, no. Unfortunately, we don’t have the resources to accept volunteers or interns at this time. We are a very small operation, with a small staff and some longtime volunteers who come back to CWR every year to help out. We have such limited boat and office space that we really don't have room for more help. However, you can add yourself to our mailing list, or like us on Facebook, and we will send you a notification if anything changes. In the meantime, if you wish to support CWR, the best way is to become a Member or make a donation.

​How are killer whales identified?

Like other types of whales and dolphins, killer whales (orcas) have a dorsal fin on their back. The dorsal fin is distinctive in that it is larger than most species relative to their body size. In fact, it is one of the characteristics used to identify individuals. Individual whales have slight variations in their fin shape. They also have distinctive nicks and scratches that help differentiate one individual from another. Additionally, killer whales have a whitish-grey patch of pigmentation on their back, just behind the dorsal fin called a saddle patch. Just like a human fingerprint, each saddle patch is different and these differences help us tell the whales apart. The combination of the saddle patch and dorsal fin are what we use to identify whales on the water or in photographs.



​How can I learn to identify an individual whale within a pod?

It takes lots of practice to learn to identity killer whales (orcas) individually, but there are some simple tricks of the trade. The Southern Resident Killer Whales (the kind you are most likely to see in the Pacific Northwest) travel in close family groups called pods. Pods are made up of multiple, matrilineal sub groups (mothers with offspring). These whales are unique among cetaceans in that they have very strong social bonds. Most often, individuals travel within their matrilineal family group, sometimes with multiple generations of mothers and their kids. This is a very handy bit of knowledge when it comes to identifying individuals in the wild. First, look for the most distinctive whale in the group. This might be an adult male, a female or juvenile with an obvious nick in their dorsal fin, or an individual with an interesting shape to their saddle patch. Then use the Orca Survey or Center for Whale Research ID Field Guide to look up which sub pod the whale is part of. Now you have established a starting point for identifying the rest of the whales in the group.

​What do killer whales eat?

Killer whales are the top predator in the ocean. They have even been known to eat Great White sharks! They can eat anything they want but since they're at the top of the marine food chain, they tend to eat higher up the ladder than other whale species. Killer whales tend to fall into three diet categories: fish-eater (Southern Residents), mammal-eater (Transients), and generalist (Offshore and other killer whale ecotypes). The fish eaters, or Southern Residents, in the North Pacific eat mostly salmon and tend to prefer Chinook (King/Spring) salmon, likely because it is the biggest and fattest of the salmon species. Transients eat other marine mammals, such as seals and porpoises, and sometimes other whales like Minkes and Humpbacks. Offshore killer whales have a more generalized diet consisting of both fish and marine mammals, as well as squid and rays.



How can you tell a male calf from female?

During the course of the Orca Survey study 123 whales have been born. Determining the gender of calves is important in gaining information about the demographics and breeding health of the Southern Resident Killer Whale population. Sex can be determined by the different pigment pattern on the underside of the whale. When a whale breaches or rolls over, the belly is often exposed, giving us a chance to determine the sex. Fortunately, new mothers have a tendency to roll their calves around on the surface, sometimes right next to our boat where we can get a good look at the calves belly and, if we are lucky, get a photograph. Male killer whales have an elongated white pattern around their genital slit stretching towards the tail, while the females white pattern is more rounded with visible mammary slits (see photograph below).

 

 

Newborn, K44 (above), born 2011. Note the elongated white pattern stretching toward his tail . . . it's a boy.

The dorsal fin and saddle patches of a killer whale are distinct. These unique physical characteristics are used to identify individual whales.

​How does a killer whale locate food?

Just like you and me, killer whales (orcas) have to eat every day. Finding food is pretty easy for most humans living in the Pacific Northwest, but is not the case for killer whales. They have eyes that are pretty similar to ours, and can see just fine out of the water. But in the deep ocean where there isn't much light, they can’t rely on eyesight alone to find their way around or find their food. Like all toothed whales (Odonticites) and bats, killer whales use a type of sonar (echolocation) to navigate and to hunt. The whales create a click sound by moving air between air spaces or sinus in their head. The sound is reflected by their skull and focused outward by the use of a fatty organ called the melon. These clicks are sent out into the water and when they hit an object (ie. Chinook salmon), they create an echo that bounces back toward the whale. The reflected sounds are absorbed through an oil-filled channel in the whale’s lower jaw. The sound is transmitted to the whale’s ear, and in that way it can hear the exact location of its prey. Echolocation is a very accurate way of "seeing" underwater. A killer whale's hearing is so sensitive that it can form a three dimensional view of objects around it. It can even tell the difference between species of fish.

How far do the Southern Resident pods travel?

Southern Resident Killer Whales travel an average of 75 miles (120 kilometers) a day. They are capable of sustaining an average speed of over 6 knots (8 miles per hour/12.87 km per hour) for long periods of time and can go as fast as 30 miles per hour (48 km per hour) for short periods. Small Transient pods and large Southern Resident pods are always in constant motion; socializing, foraging, feeding, resting, playing or just traveling. In the spring, summer and fall the Southern Residents spend most of their time in the inland waters of Washington State and southwestern British Columbia. In the winter, they expand their distribution to the Pacific coast, traveling as far south as Monterey Bay, California and as far north as Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlotte Islands), British Columbia. In 2007, L pod was photographed as far north Alaska. As with most marine mammals, their movements are determined by their food source. For the Southern Residents, this means following the salmon returning to the Fraser River in British Columbia every summer. In the winter, when Chinook salmon are less abundant, they  must expand their range to find food.
 

​Why are killer whales black and white?

Killer whales (orcas) have a very distinctive pattern of black and white, which serves as a form of camouflage from their prey. Like military airplanes that are colored light on the undersides and dark on top, this color pattern makes the whales less visible from both above and below. Also, the white and black coloration breaks up the large body size of the killer whale, making it look like something much smaller and less menacing to a seal or fish.

Southern Resident, L84, eating a Chinook salmon.

Where do the Southern Resident Killer Whales go in the winter?

Their focused distribution in the summer time is due to large numbers of Pacific Northwest salmon returning to the Fraser River in British Columbia. In recent years, during the autumn months, the Southern Residents have shifted their travel patterns southward, following salmon heading to rivers draining into Greater Puget Sound. During the winter months, however, the whales spend increasing amounts of their time in the outer coastal waters; and, in recent years, some members of the Southern Resident community, K and L pods, have been observed as far south as Monterey, California, and as far north as the Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlotte Islands), British Columbia. On several occasions, all three Southern Resident community pods have been observed returning in late spring to the inland waters of the Salish Sea by way of Johnstone Strait at the north end of Vancouver Island.

 

Johnstone Strait

Vancouver Island

to

Monterey,

California

1,252 miles apart

​​Why are they called Southern Residents?

When photo-identification studies first began in British Columbia during the early 1970s, it was quickly found that there were two separate and distinct populations of fish-eating killer whales in Pacific Northwest. These two communities were designated the Southern community and the Northern community, in direct relation to their travel patterns in and around the waters of Vancouver Island. The Southern community of killer whales (orcas) was most often encountered off the southern end of Vancouver Island, including the inland marine waters of Washington State, whereas the Northern community whales was most often encountered in the northern Vancouver Island region, including Queen Charlotte Sound and southern Southeast Alaska. As a result of more than thirty years of study, it is now well known that the annual summer feeding grounds for the Southern Resident Killer Whales encompasses the inland marine waters of Washington State, particularly around the San Juan Islands and southwestern British Columbia (now commonly referred to as the Salish Sea).

Where on the planet are killer whales found?

Killer whales (orcas) are the most cosmopolitan of all marine mammals, meaning they are found in every ocean around the world. There are certain areas where they tend to congregate, mostly in cold water. The North Pacific is home to some of the largest concentrations, with killer whale populations found regularly from California to Alaska. While the inland waters around the San Juan Islands in Washington State and southwestern British Columbia are probably the best known places in the world to see killer whales in the wild, Antarctica is where they are most abundant. There are an estimated 25,000-27,000 killer whales in the waters around Antarctica, making them the third most abundant cetacean in that area, and the highest concentration on the planet. Similar to the ecotypes we have in the North Pacific Ocean, known and distinct groups of killer whales are also found in the North Atlantic around Iceland, Norway and Scotland. In the Argentinian waters of Peninsula Valdez, another population of killer whales is well known for teaching their offspring to partially beach themselves when hunting young Elephant seals. Along the shores of the Crozet Islands, south of Madagascar, a distinct population has been observed waiting just off shore at the river mouth, ready to prey on young sea lions learning to swim. Known populations of killer whales are also found around New Zealand, where they eat a variety of prey. They are the only known group to regularly eat Stingrays, Eagle rays and Electric rays.



​What are the current threats facing the Southern Resident Killer Whales?

When the Southern Residents were listed as endangered in Canada in 2001 and in the United States in 2005, recovery plans were drafted to address the issues currently affecting their survival. These recovery plans listed four main threats to the survival of this species:

1. Reduced quantity and quality of prey (Chinook/King/Spring salmon)

2. High environmental levels of persistent biochemicals, such as PCB’s and flame retardants, that have known harmful effects on marine mammals (eg. immune system repression and reproductive system dysfunction)

3. Sound and disturbance from vessel traffic and shipping

4. Potential oil spills

Chinook (King/Spring) salmon is a keystone species of the Pacific Northwest. It is a vital food source for a diversity of wildlife, including Resident killer whales, bears, seals and large birds of prey. Alaskan stocks are relatively healthy, while those in  British Columbia and along the west coast of the United States are in danger. Protection and enhancement of Chinook salmon is crucial in re-establishing healthy Pacific Northwest ecosystems and providing a nutrient-rich food source for Resident killer whales for years to come.

Do killer whales sleep?

Unlike humans, killer whales are voluntary breathers, meaning they have to consciously remember to breathe. This means that they can’t sleep the same way we do or they would drown. Studies of dolphins and Beluga whales, which are physiologically similar to killer whales, show that they sleep by shutting down one hemisphere of their brain at a time. This allows them to rest while still maintaining their voluntary breathing. It is thought that killer whales "sleep" in a similar function. In the field, we often observe resting behavior. The whales will come together in a tight group, abreast, and move very slowly forward spending long periods at the surface.

© 2019 Center for Whale Research

The Center for Whale Research is a 501c3 nonprofit organization registered in Washington State.

All rights reserved. No part of the material found on this website may be reproduced or utilized in any form, or by any means, without the prior written consent of the Center for Whale Research.  All members of CWR are non-voting members. 

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