Don't mess with a favorite son

A look back 30 years ago ... Summer 1988

By Dr. Astrid van Ginneken, CWR Co-Principal Investigator

K17 was Dr. Astrid van Ginneken’s "first favorite male" in the Southern Resident killer whale community. She has been a volunteer CWR staff member since 1987, has published scientific and popular articles about killer whales, and has written a novel – Togetherness is Our Home, An Orca’s Journey through Life – in which killer whales star. She is a data collection and database specialist, is an accomplished wildlife photographer, and is well known for her captivating storytelling of encounters with the charismatic Southern Resident orcas. Dr. van Ginneken lives in The Netherlands.

K17 (large dorsal fin) with family at sunset.


The K18s were nearing Lime Kiln lighthouse, heading south in Haro Strait.

As was usually the case, the family matriarch, K18, and her oldest, K40, were keeping a close eye on the youngest and newest member of the clan: two-year-old, K21. The little boy rarely strayed far from his mother’s side. His older brother, 22-year-old, K17, was keeping a watch over all of them; they were one of closest knit families in K pod. CWR staff, aboard High Spirits, were observing the family of Southern Resident killer whales from a distance. “We were behind them,” recalls Dr. Astrid van Ginneken, co-principal investigator of CWR’s Orca Survey, “and there was a small powerboat, a fast powerboat coming up from behind.”​

The powerboat, traveling full speed, suddenly changed direction and charged at the K18s; mother and family quickly submerged themselves to avoid being hit. “Good grief. But we were on a slow trimaran so we could not warn those people.” The K18s hadn’t surfaced. “We were waiting: Where are the whales? Where are the whales?” Finally, mother and offspring broke through the ocean surface, each taking a breath. And, again, the powerboat – rannnggg – charged the orcas. And, once more, the whales found refuge underwater. The identical scenario occurred a third time, and then a fourth. “We saw K18, and her daughter, K40, and the little one, K21, come up. But we didn’t see K17,” describes van Ginneken. “Where is K17?” It appeared as though he had sent the others off to safety. “He finally came up, 70 or 80 yards away, perpendicular to the powerboat,” van Ginneken gestures to her left. “K17 surfaced, and then he kicked his flukes, and like a torpedo, charged the boat, with water flowing over his head. We held our breath. ‘My god! If he rams that boat?!’” He would either sink the powerboat, or badly hurt himself, or both. “And, so, he charges the boat at the surface, like a torpedo, and at the last minute he dived and left the boat rocking. Those people were pretty shaken.” What would K17 do next? Had he calmed down? Was he done defending his family? “He had turned around, and he surfaced again. And, again, like a torpedo, he charged the boat, and ducked [underwater] at the last moment.” The powerboat rocked violently in place. K17 was nowhere in sight. Then: “For a third time he came around and charged the boat. But this time he didn’t dive, he charged, full charge, and at the last moment, he swerved, then kicked the boat’s engine with his side. And then from at most three yards, he did this BIG breach!” Everyone aboard the powerboat held onto the vessel's railings, each passenger wet with saltwater. Following another lengthy dive, K17 surfaced a fair distance away, moving in the direction of his family, intent on catching up with his mom and siblings. High Spirits approached the powerboat. CWR staff explained to those on board that the orca bull was angry at them for having put his family in harm’s way.


CWR staff aboard High Spirits, photographing SRKW pod.


“If you do it again, he will sink you.” The boaters accepted the killer whale expert’s advice, first keeping their distance from the family of whales, then departing the scene altogether. “We decided, let’s give the [K18s] a break; they will have had enough of boats for today," van Ginneken continues. “Half an hour later, we had been going on to try and find other whales; I hear blows from behind: phoooh, phoooh.” Surprise! K17 was approaching High Spirits from behind!  “And he’s coming closer, coming closer. We didn’t change course, didn’t change speed. And I’m standing next to the railing, and I’m looking: ‘He can be up any moment.’" van Ginneken was leaning over the railing. "And suddenly – phoooh – he blows in my face! And his dorsal fin comes up. I could have touched him easily.” She knew better than to make physical contact. “So, he paralleled us peacefully; then he joined his family. As if he was showing his trust: ‘I know who I can trust, and whom I don’t trust.’” “That was very special,” van Ginneken remembers with a big smile and tears beginning to well in her eyes. “And ever since, I would squeak when I saw him, and he would always come to the boat, even swim between the pontoons of the trimaran, or break from a group half a mile away and come over and swim under the boat. And he waved his flukes. K17 was special, and L57 was too; well they all are. Yeah.”

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