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Forty-eight-year-old J pod matriarch, J16, leads her son, J26, in search of scarcely available Chinook salmon. Like the mature female leaders in K pod and L pod, J16 is responsible for Navigating a NEW Course in search of nourishment for her family members and the other orcas in
J pod. (Photograph by CWR's Dave Ellifrit.)

the WHALE Report

June // 2020 

CWR Member News  // Published Quarterly

Homo sapiens. If and when the scary part is over, I then hope that we live up
to our self-proclaimed title sapiens and start really taking care of Mother Earth.
Some serious adjustments of human activity are in order
when the worst of the virus is over,
not just a return to business as usual.
- Ken Balcomb, CWR Founder


An excerpt from Ken Balcomb's April 22, 2020, Earth Day message to

Centre for Whale Research members, supporters, and followers.



2020 Encounter summary:
29 Encounters through May 31, 2020 
  • Southern Resident killer whale encounters: 8

  • Transient/Bigg's killer whale encounters: 21


Encounters with killer whales in inland waters since March 1. Encounter #14 - #29, are marked on the map: SRKW Encounters with blue numbered dots and Transients/Bigg's with black numbered dots. These locator dots are active links to the full Encounter Summary (desktop version only).

CWR Member photo DOWNLOAD 

Tactile Transients 

Encounter #16 (Photo by CWR's Katie Jones

For personal use only.

See 2020 Encounters for a complete description of encounters.
Salish Sea Ecosystem.jpg

Salish Sea Transboundary Ecosystem 

Click map to enlarge

Source: Environment and Climate Change Canada 

Salish Sea: Measures 17,000 sq km with 7,470 sq km of coastline; 37 species of mammals, 172 species of birds, 247 species of fish, and over 3000 species of invertebrate inhabit the region (119 of these are at risk); eight million people make their home in the area (Source: SeaDoc Society).

Southern Resident Killer Whale Population: 73*
J pod = 22, K pod = 17, L pod = 34

The official Southern Resident orca population is 73 whales. With L41 missing and presumed deceased, the SRKW population count is provisionally 72.


CWR has documented 29 killer whale encounters through May 31 (8 Southern Resident sightings, 21 Transient/Bigg's sightings). During the five years before 2020, CWR staff observed and documented SRKWs in the first five months of the year as follows: 2019 - 11, 2018 - 10, 2017 - 18, 2016 - 17, 2015 - 13.


For the third year in a row, CWR field researchers did not see SRKWs in May.


*The official annual count of Southern Resident orcas is reported July 1 and December 31 of each year. 


SRKW Births and Deaths (1975-2019) 

Click chart to enlarge 

© 2020 Copyright Center for Whale Research.

Created by Jane Cogan. 

Derivative use requires written approval.

Navigating a NEW Course
Southern Resident orcas have practiced physical distancing for several years!
Out of necessity in their search for food

The matrilines in the Southern Resident orca population are spending less and less time together in the inland waters of the Salish Sea, searching for fewer and fewer Chinook salmon. On some days in the summers of 2018 and 2019, the only SRKWs present in the islands were the J16s and/or J17s.

Based on drone footage from CWR's Aerial Observation Study, field biologist, Michel Weiss, made the following observations in the documentary FADING SOUND


"In recent years, we’ve noticed a lot of changes with the killer whales [SRKWs], especially with their social structure. Even without analyzing it with masks and networks as I do in my work [Ph.D. thesis], just anecdotally, we see that the pods are splitting up more and more, especially J pod. They had a few years where they were forming into two really distinct groups. That was never the case before. J pod was always a cohesive group. They’re spending a lot more time spread out, and traveling, and foraging in small groups, or on their own, and a lot less time socializing; this is all probably due to a lack of food.


We know that [the SRKWs] being in the San Juan Islands is correlated with prey abundance, with salmon abundance. But also we understand how connected their social networks are correlated with salmon abundance. And there’s every reason to think that how much time they spend socializing is dependent on how much food there is. So, there’s a lot of changes in how their society works. It really all comes down to a lack of food and the deaths of some key individuals probably. And it’s probably going to continue until there’s enough food for them." 

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  • YouTube

In 2019, Friday Harbor High School classmates Blake Budwill and Luke Erickson produced FADING SOUND;

a documentary focused on the challenges facing the Southern Resident orca community.

Where do the Southern Resident orcas spend their time when not in the Salish Sea?

Since compiling this data in 2012, the physical distance the SRKWs travels in search of food has expanded even more. And the orcas are spending more and more time outside their core Summer habit.

SRKW Winter Distribution_2012.png

Click chart to enlarge

© 2020 Copyright Center for Whale Research.

Derivative use requires written approval.

getting to KNOW THEM

getting to KNOW THEM

J16 matriline

In each issue of the WHALE Report, we feature one or more members of the Southern Resident orca community. 

Screen Shot 2020-05-17 at 12.52.12

J16 // Matriline

  • Matriarch: J16

    • Estimated born in 1972

    • One of the oldest females in the SRKW community (only L25 is older)

    • Three living offspring: J26, J36, and J42

    • Three deceased offspring: J33 (fathered by J1), J48, and J50

    • Gave birth to her daughter, J50, at the advanced reproductive age of forty-two (2014)

    • J16 is easily identified by her right side open saddle patch with tic-tac-toe pattern of scratches and a long finger on her left side saddle patch (see Orca Survey ID Guide on CWR Member homepage).

  • Offspring: J26

    • Born in 1991

    • Father was J1 (for genetic test results read: Inferred paternity and male reproductive success in a killer whale (Orcinus orca) population) 

    • Only mature male in J pod with an open saddle patch, left and right side (see Orca Survey ID Guide on CWR Member homepage)

    • Tall dorsal fin with a wavy trailing edge like his father, J1 (Est. born 1951-2010)

    • Nicknamed "Mike" because he was the first male born into the SRKWs after the death of Dr. Mike Bigg in October 1990.

  • Offspring: J36

    • Born in 1999

    • Her only calf, J52 (male), was born in 2015, died in 2017

    • Identified by closed saddle patches (left and right side) and a wide, pointed dorsal fin (see Orca Survey ID Guide on CWR Member homepage).

  • Offspring: J42

Screen Shot 2020-05-17 at 12.53.16
About J26's namesake: Dr. Mike Bigg

Dr. Bigg was among the first biologists to use photo-identification to document population size and structure of free-swimming whales. He suffered ridicule in parts of the scientific world for maintaining that virtually all individual killer whales could be known. He passed away too young in 1990.



Tail Lob - An orca lifts its tail flukes above the water and brings them down with force. See photographs and descriptions of orcas "performing" different physical maneuvers or behaviors. The list provides 1) a name for each of the physical actions, 2) a description of the movement, and 3) in some instances, explains why.

What's J26 doing?
Photo Gallery - J16s 
J16 Half Breach

J16 Half Breach

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit, 2018.

J42 Spyhopping

J42 Spyhopping

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit, 2015.

J42 Kiss the Sky

J42 Kiss the Sky

Photograph by Ken Balcomb, 2016.

J36 being playful with J16 and J42

J36 being playful with J16 and J42

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit, 2013.

J26 Bellyflop

J26 Bellyflop

Photograph by Ken Balcomb, 2014.

J2 and J16 Swimming in the Rain

J2 and J16 Swimming in the Rain

Photograph by Erin Heydenreich, 2014.

J26 Half Breach

J26 Half Breach

Photograph by Mia Reynolds, 2019.

J26 and J16

J26 and J16

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit, 2019.

J36 with J52

J36 with J52

Photograph by Ken Balcomb, 2016.

J16 and J42

J16 and J42

Photograph by Melisa Pinnow, 2018.

J36 and J26

J36 and J26

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit, 2018.

getting to KNOW US

Meet the entire Center for Whale Research team

getting to KNOW US

Interview with

CWR's Dave Ellifrit, the "fin guy"


and busy working on the Orca Survey

database in the Centre for Whale Research office.

Dave Ellifrit has been with the Center for Whale Research since 1990. He is responsible for the curation of the killer whale photographic ID library and associated database. He can identify on sight almost every killer whale in the Pacific Northwest. Hence, he is affectionately known as the "fin guy." Some people think Dave has a photographic memory; he doesn't. He does, however, have a remarkable ability to learn, and has put in an inordinate amount of time mastering identifying each whale by its distinctive look. 

Dave Ellifrit_Salish Sea School.png
  • YouTube

In Episode 2 of The Salish Sea School's "Students and a Scientist" lecture series, WANT TO STUDY ORCAS IN THE WILD? Dave was asked, among other questions:

  • "What led you to the special work you are now doing?"

  • "What does a normal day in the field look like for you?"

  • "What is your favorite part of the job?"

  • "What is your least favorite part of the job?"

Dave at Computer.png
from the SCIENCE Desk

from the SCIENCE Desk

ORCA Survey

Since 1976, the Center for Whale Research has been conducting observation-based studies of killer whales in the Salish Sea. CWR staff continue to collect detailed demographic data about the Southern Resident killer whale population for the 2020 Orca Survey, including: photo-identification images of members of the SRKW community; observations of births and deaths; and information about the behavior and ecology of the animals, including where the animals are in geographic location and time, and their social behavior and foraging patterns. This dataset provides unprecedented insights into killer whale biology and ecology that can inform management decisions to assist in the recovery of the population.

Dave shooting from CWR boat_edited.jpg

Field staff documenting SRKWs 

(note the yellow flag, signifying the organization has a research permit).

Aerial Observation Study

In 2018, the Center for Whale Research, working with a research team from the University of Exeter, launched a research study using drones (i.e., unmanned aerial vehicles/UAVs) to study the behavior of the Southern Resident killer whales from a new perspective. This study helps understand their complex lives better, revealing factors that influence survival, reproduction, social structure, and the evolution of this unique life-history.


In 2019, the CWR-University of Exeter SRKW Aerial Observation Study expanded. It became part of a large international project funded by the National Environmental Research Council in the United Kingdom to look at how family life influences rates of aging. CWR Scientific Advisor (Animal Social Networks) and Professor of Animal Behaviour at the University of Exeter, Dr. Darren Croft, summarizes the project: The Evolution of Sex Differences in Mammalian Social Life Histories.

Read more about the SRKW Aerial Observation Study and CWR's drone pilots. See aerial footage of the orcas on a big screen and have your questions about the Southern Residents answered at the ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island.

RECENT Published Studies

Weiss, M. N., D. W. Franks, K. C. Balcomb, D. K. Ellifrit, M. J. Silk, M. A. Cant and D. P. Croft (2020). Modelling cetacean morbillivirus outbreaks in an endangered killer whale population. Biological Conservation 242: 108398. Full Text.

Nattrass, S., Croft, D. P., Ellis, S., Cant, M. A., Weiss, M. N., Wright, B, M., Stredulinsky, E., Doniol-Valcrozef, T., Ford, J. K. B., Balcomb, K. C., & Franks, D. W. (2019). Postreproductive killer whale grandmothers improve the survival of their grandoffspring. PNAS. Full Text.


Visit Research Publications at for a list of publications where the Center for Whale Research has had involvement. 

Outreach & Education

CWR Outreach & Education

The Center for Whale Research works tirelessly and relentlessly advocating for immediate action by politicians and government agencies to reverse the dramatic decline of Chinook salmon stocks in Southern Resident killer whale habitat. At every opportunity, CWR team members speak out boldly in the media concerning the sick and starving SRKWs. We reach out to as many people as possible with focused educational and Take Action messages, through speaking engagements, social media channels and, targeted advertising campaigns, and face to face discussions with visitors to the ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center in Friday Harbor.

Read some of CWR's Recent Accomplishments 
made possible by your financial support.
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  • YouTube

Read Ken Balcomb's April 22 Earth Day message to

CWR members, supporters, and followers.


DAMMED TO EXTINCTION (download or disc) - With involvement by the Center for Whale Research and support from the Ruth Foundation, Steven Hawley and Michael Peterson produced the film DAMMED TO EXTINCTION. It offers a reasonable justification for removing the Lower Snake River dams to the benefit of Chinook salmon and the Southern Resident orcas.

At the TEDxBigSky event in JanuaryHawley and Peterson make a further compelling case for the immediate removal of the four Lower Snake River dams.

Ken Balcomb Interview
Play Video

CWR's Ken Balcomb interviewed by Peterson/Hawley Productions (DAMMED TO EXTINCTION).

CWR Education ACTION: ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center

Learn about the attractions and activities at ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center at

CWR's ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center is TEMPORARILY CLOSED DUE TO COVID-19. It will reopen when it is determined to be safe for visitors, volunteers, and employees.


The ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center opened in Friday Harbor in the Summer of 2018. Since then, close to 14,000 people from across North America and around the world have visited and learned from knowledgeable CWR staff and volunteers about killer whales and how they can help the struggling population of Southern Resident orcas.


The mission of the ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center is to educate and give back to the public the information and knowledge that CWR, and our colleagues, have gathered during 44 years of research of killer whales (orcas) in the waters surrounding the San Juan Islands.

Member's ACTIONS: Here's what you can do
Lower Granite Dam_YALE ENVIRONMENTAL 360



June is Orca Action Month

The past few months have been trying for everyone. It's been easy for us to be distracted from the environmental issues facing our world. Like extinction hanging over the melons of our beloved Southern Resident orcas. 


In addition to your financial support of CWR, during Orca Action Month go to Take ACTION at to learn how you can participate in the efforts to save the SRKWs.

In February 2020, a supporter of the Center For Whale Research wrote a letter to Maria Cantwell, Patty Murray, NOAA, and the other government entities that we suggest on the Take ACTION page. Senator Cantwell's reply.

Learn why the four Lower Snake River dams should be immediately removed by watching DAMMED TO EXTINCTION (download or disc).

There is no more important issue facing the future survival of J, K, and L pods than ensuring that they have enough salmon to survive and reproduce. Restoration of the Snake River system to normative flow is essential for this to happen on a scale that is meaningful for the salmon and the whales, and for the fishermen.
                                                                         - Ken Balcomb, CWR Founder and Senior Scientist

The Southern Resident orcas inhabit ocean waters managed by the United States and Canadian governments.

Recovery actions announced by the Government of Canada on May 10, 2019, are meant to enhance Chinook salmon stocks for the SRKWs, as well as improve fo