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the WHALE Report

Sept // 2020 

CWR Member News  // Published Quarterly


Eating For TWO

L72 (pictured) and J35 are pregnant! 
According to recent aerial photographs, thirty-four-year-old, L72, and twenty-two-year-old, J35, are pregnant. L72’s mid-body width is evidence that she is closer to giving birth than her J pod community member. Read more about Orca pregnancies >
L72 and her sixteen-year-old son, L105, seen on July 25, 2020 during Encounter #35.

Photograph by Katie Jones, taken under Center for Whale Research Federal permit NMFS # 21238



We are looking at a lot of dead-end matrilines and a major population crash in the coming decades if more female calves are not born into the Southern Resident community . . . Unless {humans] can provide the whales with proper amounts of salmon and reduce the contaminants in their blubber [interfering] with their immune and reproductive systems, the Southern Resident community will continue to decline.
- Dave Ellifrit, CWR Orca ID Specialist

From Dave Ellifrit's July 27, 2020 BLOG Happy 30th birthday, L83!

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; 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 continues to provide unprecedented insights into killer whale biology and ecology that can inform management decisions to assist in the recovery of the population.

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Dave Ellifrit, CWR Orca ID Specialist, busy working on the Orca Survey database in the

Centre for Whale Research office.

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 social organization and underwater behaviour of the Southern Resident killer whales from a new perspective. This study helps understand the SRKW's complex lives better, revealing factors that influence survival, reproduction, social structure, and the evolution of this species unique life-history.


In 2019, the CWR-University of Exeter SRKW Aerial Observation Study was expanded and 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. When the ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island reopens, you can watch aerial footage of the Southern Residents on a big screen and have your questions about orcas answered.

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


2020 Encounter summary:
38 Encounters through September 1, 2020 
  • Southern Resident killer whale encounters: 13

  • Transient/Bigg's killer whale encounters: 25


Encounters with killer whales in inland waters since June 1. Encounter #30 - #38, are marked on the map: SRKW Encounters are marked with red 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

K35 Cartwheel

For personal use only.

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CWR’s Dave Ellifrit took this photograph of 18-year-old, K35, during Encounter #34 on July 24, 2020. 

See 2020 Encounters for a complete description of encounters.
Southern Resident Killer Whale Population: 72*
J pod = 22, K pod = 17, L pod = 33

*The SRKW population is down from last year. Due to the absence of these whales in the Salish Sea for most of the summer of 2020, we do not yet have a comprehensive photo-inventory of individuals for a July census. However, we know that a forty-three-year-old male, L41, was missing in January (see Encounter #2, 2020), and he has not been seen in any SRKW encounters by colleagues on the west coast of Canada this summer. L41 is now presumed dead, and there have been no reports of any newborn SRKWs this year, so tentatively, we estimate the July 1, 2020 population to be 72. We hope to have some SRKW encounters in September if they come into the Salish Sea following salmon migrations, and we will update accordingly by October 1, 2020.​

*Why are there two official SRKW count dates? 

CWR reports the official annual count of Southern Resident orcas twice each year: July 1 and December 31. Ken Balcomb explains why in this YouTube video of his Superpod 6 presentation. (Watch from 4:43 thru 9:28). 

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  • YouTube
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 (6,564 sq mi) with 7,470 sq km (2,884 sq mi) of coastline; 37 species of mammals, 172 species of birds, 247 species of fish, and 3,000+ species of invertebrate inhabit the region (119 of these are at risk); eight million people make their home in the area 


Cartwheel: An orca throws its flukes, caudal peduncle, and rear part of its body from one side to another in at least a 45-degree arc.


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.


Orca behaviors explained
What is K25 doing? This a Cartwheel. 
K25 cartwheel_20150723DKE_SJ1-0425.jpg
20190705DKE_SJ1-0785_J56 spyhops next to

J56 Spyhops next to J31

(Photograph by Dave Ellifrit, CWR)

How can you tell a male orca calf from a female?
Orcas can be distinguished by variations in the pigmenta­tion in the genital area.

During the Center for Whale Researchs Orca Survey study, 123 whales have been born. Determining a calfs gender is important in gaining information about the demographics and breeding health of the Southern Resident orca population.
Gender is 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 CWR field staff a chance to determine the sex. Fortunately, new mothers tend to roll their calves around on the surface, where researchers can get a good look at the calf's belly and, hopefully, get a photograph.
Male killer whales have an elongated white pattern around their genital slit stretching toward the tail, while a females white pattern is more rounded with visible mammary slits (see illustration).

Male & Female Orcas_Genitals.png

This illustration appears in Killer Whales Second Edition by John K.B. Ford, Graeme M. Ellis, and Kenneth C Balcomb, UBC Press © 2000. Used with permission.

It's a boy! This photograph of newborn, K44, was taken in 2011. Note the elongated white pattern stretching toward his tail. 

Orca reproduction
Here are some facts about orca pregnancy and reproduction taken from CWR Field Biologist Michael Weiss's August 19 BLOG on the subject:
  • Orca pregnancies last 18 months, one of the longest gestations of any mammal

  • Newborn calves are around 8 feet long and weigh about 400 lbs

  • Newborn calves suckle for short periods dozens of times a day; their mother's milk is extremely rich, possibly containing 40-60% fat

  • Calves may start experimenting with solid food at a young age but likely do not fully wean until around the age of three

  • Southern Resident orcas have unusually low reproductive output, lower than Northern Resident orcas

  • Approximately 69% of Southern Resident pregnancies result in spontaneous abortion based on work using hormones derived from fecal samples

  • Of the orcas assigned an ID by CWR since 1976, about 1 in 6 died before their first birthday

  • A pregnancy has about a 1 in 5 chance of resulting in a calf that survives for more than a year

  • Low reproductive output points toward reduced prey availability and toxins as the main threats to successful reproduction

  • There is evidence that these two threats interact: toxins become more of a threat when salmon abundance is low, and a whale's body condition is poor

  • Toxins/persistent organic pollutants, like PCBs, are passed from the mother to the calf during gestation and nursing, which could cause pregnancies to fail and young calves to die

  • Spontaneous abortions correlate with hormonal evidence of nutritional stress 

  • Controlling for age, females are more likely to reproduce in years following years of high Chinook salmon abundance; the survival of calves (and all Southern Residents) is correlated with salmon abundance.

getting to KNOW THEM

getting to KNOW THEM

L72 & J35  

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

L72 // Female -  L72 matriline 

  • Born 1986, 34-years-old

  • Mother: L43 (Est. 1972-2006), Father: unknown

  • Two male siblings, both deceased: L95 (1996-2016) and L104 (2004-2006)

  • L72 is the mother of one offspring, L105 (male, born 2004; father L57) and a dead neonate in 2010

  • Identify L72 by her bi-laterally symmetrical saddle pattern, open with a deep vertical black line and circular shape near the top; her dorsal fin is tall for her gender and pointy for a SRKW (see Orca Survey ID Guide on CWR Member homepage).

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Right side ID photo of L72 from 1987.


Current right side ID photo of L72.

J35 // Female - J17 matriline 

  • Born 1998, 21-years-old

  • Mother: J17 (1977-2019), last seen by CWR researchers on April 7, 2019 (Encounter #25)

  • Father: L41 (1977-missing in 2020)

  • Three siblings: J28 (female, 1993-2016), J44 (male, born 2009), and J53 (female, born 2015)

  • Offspring: J47 (male, born 2010) and a calf in 2018 which died; she carried her deceased calf for 17 days before letting it go

  • J35 is tricky to identify; her saddle pattern on both sides is ‘closed’ and free of distinctive scratches, but she has a very slight ‘spray’ of gray coloration along the upper leading edge of the saddle on each side; and, her dorsal fin has no obvious nicks (see Orca Survey ID Guide on CWR Member homepage).

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Right side ID photo of J35 from in 1998.

Current right side ID photo of J35.

a look BACK
A look BACK
Looking DOWN on J35  by CWR's Katie Jones
I could FEEL someone watching me.

In 2007, I was kayaking in Haro Strait just out from the Center for Whale Research on the west side of San Juan Island. I was sitting a bit south of the reef in front of the house. I looked further to the south and could see whales heading my way. I decided to sit quietly in my kayak and wait for the whales to see what they would do.


J17 and J28 surfaced just a little way off the bow of my kayak, but no J35. I remember looking around, wondering where she was, and then a strange feeling came over me: I could FEEL someone watching me. Instead of continuing to look around, I looked DOWN. And there was J35 right under my kayak—on her side staring up at me! She only stayed there for a moment before moving on to catch up with her mother and sister. It's a moment I will never forget.

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J35 surfacing for a breath next to her breaching mother, J17. (Photograph by Dave Ellifrit, CWR, 2013).

Photo Gallery - ​L72, J35, & Offspring
L72 Spyhop

L72 Spyhop

Photograph by Michael Weiss

L105 and L72

L105 and L72

Photograph by Katie Jones

K16 and L72

K16 and L72

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit

L105 and L116

L105 and L116

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit

L105 Taillob

L105 Taillob

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit

J35 Spyhop

J35 Spyhop

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit

J35 Breach

J35 Breach

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit

J35 Breach

J35 Breach

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit

J47 and J35

J47 and J35

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit

J35 Carrying a Fish

J35 Carrying a Fish

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit

J35 with its Deceased Calf

J35 with its Deceased Calf

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit

J47 Breach

J47 Breach

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit

getting to KNOW US

Meet the entire Center for Whale Research team

Q: Michael, do you have a favorite SRKW encounter? 

A: My favorite encounter is probably from a few years back, when I was watching whales from Lime Kiln. J pod, the K14s, and L87 passed by very close to shore in a tight group. What made it particularly special was that this was the first encounter where I was able to recognize every whale there by sight. Knowing the individuals creates a special kind of connection and recognition that's very powerful and hard to explain.

getting to KNOW US

CWRMichael Weiss

Michael was born and raised in Florida, where his interest in marine life began by watching Bottlenose dolphins swim by his house. He received his Bachelor’s degree in biology from Reed College in 2016, following the completion of a thesis on Southern Resident killer whales’ social structure.


He is currently completing his Ph.D. at the University of Exeter in South West England, United Kingdom. His work centers around the evolutionary and conservation consequences of killer whale social structure. He is developing statistical methods for analyzing social structure using the CWR’s long-term dataset and gaining new insights into killer whale behavior using footage from unmanned aerial systems.

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Michael Weiss (near the stern) and Dave Ellifrit 

aboard a CWR research vessel.

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, WhaleResearch.comtargeted advertising campaigns, and face-to-face discussions with ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center visitors.

These whales, theyre not doing very well right now, but theyre still here, and they’re going from here to California to Alaska to wherever they have to go to find enough food to eat. [Fighting to remove the dams] is probably the most important project that Ive undertaken in my life. Theres a lot of opposition, but well prevail.
- CWRKen Balcomb, taken from an interview by Peterson/Hawley Productions (DAMMED TO EXTINCTION)