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The Amazing Grandmothers of the Southern Resident orca community

These matriarchs teach the other orcas how to fish and where to find Chinook salmon; they also give up to 90% of the salmon they catch to the younger whales in their pod

K12 and family (photograph by Dave Ellifrit, CWR)

The blog content that follows below first appeared in the June 2019 issue of the WHALE Report (Centre for Whale Research Member-exclusive quarterly newsletter). These newsletters are full of compelling information and magnificent photographs of orcas. If you aren’t already a CWR Member, consider becoming one. Your financial support helps us continue our studies and speak out on behalf of the Southern Resident orcas. Learn more >


The transcribed quoted text is the opening words of the TEDEd Animation Lesson video, The Amazing Grandmothers of the Killer Whale Pod, written by the Center for Whale Research's Dr. Darren Croft. Click on the YouTube TEDEd link below to watch the video. To date, it has over 860,000 views.

"Off the rugged coast of the Pacific Northwest, pods of killer whales inhabit the frigid waters. Each family is able to survive here thanks mainly to one member, its most knowledgeable hunter: the grandmother.

These matriarchs can live eighty years or more, while most males die off in their thirties. Though killer whales inhabit every major ocean, until recently we knew very little about them. The details of their lives eluded scientists until an organization called the Center for Whale Research began studying a single population near Washington State and British Columbia in 1976. Thanks to their ongoing work, we’ve learned a great deal about these whales, known as the Southern Residents. And the more we learn, the more this population’s elders’ vital role comes into focus.

Each grandmother starts her life as a calf born into her mother’s family group, or matriline. The family does everything together, hunting and playing, even communicating through their own unique set of calls. Both sons and daughters spend their entire lives with their mothers’ families."

Dr. Darren Croft is the Center for Whale Research's Scientific Advisor (Animal Social Networks) and Professor of Animal Behaviour at the University of Exeter (Exeter, Devon, UK). His behavioral ecologist research interests lie in two main areas:

  • What are the mechanisms and functions that underpin the structure of animal societies?

  • What are the evolutionary implications of this structure?


SRKW GRANDmothers J19, K12, L47, L55

These four grandmothers rear, teach, and lead their pods. Each of these orcas is now considered post-reproductive. CWR Members can see ID photographs of these orcas in the 2019 ORCA ID guide. Note. J16 (est. born 1972) and L25 (est. born 1928) have been grandmothers, but their grandchildren have died. They still play a leadership role in their pod.

J19 // J19 matriline

  • Born 1979, 41-years-old

  • Mother of two offspring, J29 (male, 1993-1993) and J41 (female, born 2005); one grandchild, J51 (male, born 2015); NOTE: J41 is the youngest mother to date in the SRKW community giving birth to J51 at the tender age of ten

  • Identify J19 by a finger on her left side saddle patch and right side saddle patch that is solid but for the trace of a finger; her dorsal fin is free of nicks.

K12 // K12 matriline

  • Est. Born 1972, 48-years-old

  • Mother of five offspring, K22 (female, born 1987), K28 (female, 1994-2006), K31 (male, 1999-2005), K37 (male, born 2003), and K43 (female, born 2010); three grandchildren, K33 (male, born 2001), K39 (sex unknown, 2006-2006), and K41 (sex unknown, 2006-2006)

  • Identify K12 by two very different saddle patches: narrow left side saddle patch with a thick finger and larger right side saddle patch with a long, skinny finger; her dorsal fin is free of nicks. 

L47 // L47 matriline

  • Est. Born 1974, 46-years-old

  • Mother of seven offspring, L83 (female, born 1990), L91 (female, born 1995), L99 (sex unknown, 2000-2000), L102 (sex unknown, 2002-2002), L107 (sex unknown, 2005-2005), L111 (female, 2008-2008), and L115 (male, born 2010); two grandchildren, L110 (male, born 2007) and L122 (male, born 2015) 

  • Identify L47 by the hint of a finger on her left side saddle patch and the thick finger on her right side saddle patch; she has a small nick near the base of her dorsal fin's trailing edge.

L55 // L4 matriline

  • Born 1977, 43-years-old

  • Mother of five offspring, L82 (female, born 1990), L96 (male, 1996-1997), L103 (female, born 2003), L109 (male, born 2007), and L118 (female, born 2011); two grandchildren, L116 (male, born 2010) and L123 (male, born 2015) 

  • Identify L55 by a finger on her left and right side saddle patch (her left side saddle patch is smaller than the right side and lighter in color); her dorsal fin is tall for a female but is free of nicks.


Elder females' role is critically important during prey scarcity. A 2015 study, Ecological knowledge, leadership, and the evolution of menopause in killer whales, clearly shows that leadership by post-reproductive females in the Southern Resident orca population is even more important when food is lacking.

L118 and L55 (photograph by Dave Ellifrit, CWR)


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