the WHALE Report
CWR Member News // Published Quarterly
the research issue
In this issue of the WHALE Report, we look at the Center for Whale Research’s scientific accomplishments in recent years and the ramifications of this groundbreaking research.
Photographs and videos are taken under Center for Whale Research Federal Permits NMFS #27038 / DFO SARA 388.
By monitoring the [SRKW] population’s social structure and demography and applying new data collection and analysis methods, we can continue to expand our understanding of these killer whales [orcas], improve our scientific understanding of animal social evolution, and uncover essential information for population recovery.
in this issue of
the WHALE Report
All photographs, videos, and information on WhaleResearch.com are Copyright © 2023 Center for Whale Research.
Figure 2 (ABOVE) from the Center for Whale Research study Costly lifetime maternal investment in killer whales (PDF), published in Current Biology in February 2023, explains that Southern Resident orca sons remain dependent on their mothers even as they age.
from the SCIENCE Desk
Center for Whale Research (CWR) AREAS OF STUDY
Since 1976, the Center for Whale Research has conducted observation-based studies of killer whales in the Salish Sea. Staff continues to collect detailed demographic data about the Southern Resident killer whale population for the 2023 CWR ORCA SURVEY. This survey includes 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, their social behavior, and foraging patterns. The dataset provides unprecedented insights into killer whale biology and ecology that can inform management decisions to assist in the recovery of the population.
The Center for Whale Research-University of Exeter Aerial Observation Study uses drones (i.e., unmanned aerial vehicles/UAVs) to study the Southern Resident and Bigg’s (Transient) killer whales’ social organization and underwater behavior from a new perspective. This study helps better understand the orca ecotypes’ complex lives, revealing factors influencing survival, reproduction, social structure, and the evolution of these species’ unique life histories. The study was expanded in 2019, becoming part of a large international project examining the link between social structure and life history in animal populations.
With your financial support, the Center for Whale Research’s scientists, staff, and volunteers have studied the Southern Resident and Bigg’s (Transient) orcas in the Pacific Northwest for FIVE DECADES. In addition, we’ve continuously advocated for the best interests of the gravely endangered Southern Resident orcas. The CWR team’s commitment to these iconic marine mammals persists. Our primary goals in 2023 have been to continue our essential orca studies while also informing decision-makers to make the best choices for the benefit of the Southern Residents: to provide them with more wild Chinook salmon in a healthier ocean environment.
from the SCIENCE Desk
2023 Science in Review
By Dr. Michael Weiss, Center for Whale Research’s Research Director
Way back in 2012, Center for Whale Research (CWR) researchers and collaborators at DFO Canada (Fisheries and Oceans Canada), the University of Exeter, and the University of York showed that resident killer whale mothers play a crucial role in keeping their adult sons alive. This year, we’ve made strides to understand further this unique and extraordinary relationship and its consequences for the Southern Resident population.
Previous research suggested that moms can help their sons by leading them to food and directly sharing the salmon they catch. This year, CWR research has revealed a new way moms help their sons: by keeping them from getting injured by other whales. Master’s student Charli Grimes analyzed thousands of CWR photographs of Southern Residents to measure “rake marks”—the scratches other whales’ teeth left during fights or rough play. She then paired this data with information on whales’ social situation, particularly whether they had a mother around and how old their mother was. Remarkably, this research showed that male killer whales with post-reproductive moms had fewer rake marks than males without a living mother. This benefit wasn’t found for males with reproductive mothers or for females. CWR research is now using aerial observation to look more closely at how these older females keep their sons out of trouble. Still, it’s clear having an experienced mom can be a huge help for a male killer whale.
Another piece of the puzzle that’s been missing is how this relationship affects the moms. Does caring for these big adult sons take a toll on female killer whales? Recent CWR research suggests that female killer whales with sons are less likely to reproduce successfully. Each additional son reduced females’ annual chances of successful reproduction by around 70%. This effect was not found for daughters, who didn’t appear to impact their mothers’ fecundity. The same analysis showed these costs continued into adulthood: sons didn’t get any less costly as they grew older. While we don’t know the exact reason for this effect, we suspect it involves females sharing food with their adult sons since successful pregnancies require good nutrition.
CWR work has also contributed to a better understanding of mother-offspring bonds in other killer whale ecotypes. University of Exeter Ph.D. student Mia Lybkær Kronborg Nielsen analyzed decades of encounter data from CWR and DFO Canada to investigate how mother-offspring bonds change in Bigg’s (formerly Transient) killer whales. She found that similar to resident killer whales, it’s the mother-son bond that is the most central to Bigg’s killer whales. While daughters often disperse when they reach the age where they start having their calves, males rarely disperse from their natal group while their mom is still alive. Nielsen is currently analyzing aerial video of Bigg’s killer whales collected by CWR to determine whether this reflects patterns of cooperation and prey sharing within these groups.
Graphical abstract (ABOVE) from CWR’s Current Biology-published paper: Postreproductive female killer whales reduce socially inflicted injuries in their male offspring.
Read Mia Lybkær Kronborg Nielsen’s BLOG: New evidence of menopause in Bigg’s Transient killer whales.
Understanding whale evolution
Center for Whale Research scientists have also been contributing to studies of whale evolution. Our collaborator at the University of Exeter, Dr. Sam Ellis, studies life history and social evolution in cetaceans. One of the difficult tasks in this work is estimating whale lifespans since detailed longitudinal data like CWR’s dataset is rarely collected in other species. Dr. Ellis developed a statistical method for estimating lifespans from stranding data, which can be used to compare lifespans between species. However, these statistical models needed to be validated. That’s where CWR’s complete census dataset on the Southern Residents became so important. Dr. Ellis used our data to compare estimates from his method to estimates derived from the long-term census, showing that while his model has lots of uncertainty, it can still capture longevity patterns with relatively little data. This knowledge will allow researchers to investigate broad evolutionary questions about cetacean evolution, highlighting the importance of long-term studies.
Tracking killer whale health and behavior over time
In addition to studying killer whale social structure, Center for Whale Research data has contributed to studies of how Southern Resident’s behavior and body condition has changed over the decades. One such study used CWR encounter data and other sources of sightings data to understand how SRKW usage of their core summer habitat is related to Chinook abundance. This study found that the decline in Fraser River Chinook ties closely to the presence of SRKW in the Salish Sea, demonstrating the critical role these fish play at all levels of SRKW biology.
Another recent study used CWR photographs to analyze the whales’ skin condition changes over time, looking for evidence of potential disease. This study showed that skin “lesions” have increased over the years in all three pods. It’s not known where these blemishes come from or whether they impact the whales’ health. Currently, there is no statistical relationship between the presence of these marks and whale mortality. Careful monitoring is needed going forward to ensure that these marks are not a sign of any underlying issues.
Visit Research Publications at WhaleResearch.com to see a list of the many other publications where the Center for Whale Research has had involvement.
The video BELOW is UAV Encounter #6, July 3. The initial footage is the L94s (L94, L113, L121, and L94’s new calf L127). L127 rolling at the surface allowed the CWR team to confirm its sex: female. The second part of the video shows L119, her new son L126, and L22.
2023 Encounter summary
at a Harbor seal
Tail Swipe at a Harbor seal
(Photograph by CWR’s Darren Croft).
CWR Member DOWNLOAD
For personal use only.
Encounter Location: Rosario Strait
Part of Encounter Summary:
After leaving the T137s in Haro (see OS Encounter #40), the team headed towards Rosario Strait to catch up with the T18s. The team finally found them outside the entrance to Lopez Pass. The whales were split into pairs, both hunting seals. While T18 and T19C worked on catching a seal a bit further inshore, the team saw T19 chase a seal up to the surface before the T19B made the kill further inshore. Read all of ORCA SURVEY Encounter #41.
2023 CWR Encounter summary
Encounters with killer whales in inland waters from June 1-September 22 are marked on the map. ORCA SURVEY (OS) Encounters with Southern Residents are marked with blue and Bigg’s (Transients) with black locator dots. Aerial Observation Study (UAV) Encounters are indicated by green locator dots. Numbered locator dots are active links to the full Encounter Summary (desktop version only).
Encounters in 2023 (June 1-Sept 22):
33 ORCA SURVEY (OS) Encounters
Southern Resident killer whale (SRKW) Encounters: 15
Bigg’s (Transient) killer whale Encounters: 18
15 Aerial Observation Study (UAV) Encounters
Southern Resident killer whale (SRKW) Encounters: 9
Bigg’s (Transient) killer whale Encounters: 6
So far, in 2023, the Center for Whale Research has conducted 56 on-the-water encounters, collecting photo-ID images and aerial video of Southern Resident (SRKW) and Bigg’s (Transient) killer whale groups. We’ve completed our July 1 census of the SRKW population, recording two new births in the L12 subgroup: L126 (male, mother L119) and L127 (female, mother L94). We recorded no deaths between July 1, 2022, and July 1, 2023.
Our full report on the SRKW census will be filed in the coming weeks. This report, as always, will include the current “master catalogue” of identification images for the Southern Residents, a detailed summary of all of our sightings, individual-level summaries of all SRKW (year of birth, sex, mother, date of first and last sighting), and a narrative of the year as a whole. To read details about what we’re seeing on the water and photographs and videos from our encounters, see our 2022/23 Encounters page.
Southern Resident killer whale POPULATION (SRKW): 75*
J pod = 25, K pod = 16, L pod = 34
In September 2023, the Center for Whale Research completed its annual Southern Resident orca (SRKW) population census for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). *As of the official annual census date, July 1, 2023, the SRKW population comprised 75 individuals.
*The official annual count of SRKWs is reported on July 1 and December 31. Center for Whale Research founder and longtime senior scientist Ken Balcomb explains why there are two counts in this YouTube video.
SRKW NEWS update
Not ONE, but TWO New Babies in L Pod!
June 30: The Center for Whale Research confirmed two new calves in the Southern Resident orca population. L126 is L119’s first calf, while L127 is L94’s third. CWR researchers encountered the calves during a survey containing members of J pod and the L12 subgroup in the Strait of Georgia (OS Encounter #31). We estimated the calves to be at least two months old and showed no immediate signs of illness or abnormality. The calves were very active and social. The sex of the calves was unknown. Learn about distinguishing a female orca from a male. These are the first calves born in L pod since 2021 and the first calves born in the L12 subgroup since 2018.
July 3: Center for Whale Research researchers obtained photos and drone footage confirming L127 is female (UAV Encounter #6).
July 4: CWR researcher photographs revealed that L126 is male (OS Encounter #34).
The death of Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut (Tokitae/Toki) on August 18 spread grief worldwide. The L pod female resided in her aquarium tank for 53 years. She was the last known survivor of the SRKW population captured for entertainment purposes during the 1960s and early 1970s. “Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut should never have been forced to spend endless decades in an excruciatingly small aquarium tank in Florida. She should have been here in the open ocean . . . with her family.” Read all of CWR Scientific Interpreter Katie Jones’ August 24 BLOG: Toki will always be remembered.
A very generous Center for Whale Research member donated $3,000 following Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut/Tokitae’s death. A note accompanied her financial gift: “This donation is the sum of my savings from the sales of my artwork for Tokitae’s journey home. I know she would want her family to be helped now with this money. In Tokis memory and with love and light.”
LISTEN to Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut’s L pod vocalizations while in captivity.
A few events honoring Tokitae’s passing:
August 27: Celebration of Sk’aliCh’elh’tenaut (Tokitae/Lolita). The Port of Friday Harbor hosted the Lummi Nation, Se Si’ Le, and House of Tears Carvers at Jackson Beach to celebrate the life of Sk’aliCh’elh’tenaut. Learn the history of the Story Pole carved for Tokitae in 2018.
September 9: South Sound Memorial for Tokitae at Tacoma, Washington’s Foss Waterway Seaport. This event was hosted by a 13-year-old Tacoma student with support from Orca Network and Foss Waterway Seaport.
September 10: Coast Salish Elders Rosie Cayou James and Bill Bailey held a Salmon Ceremony for Tokitae at Coupeville Wharf in Penn Cove. Tokitae was captured in Penn Cove. Attendees were asked to wear black and white. The event was co-sponsored by Orca Network, Town of Coupeville, Port of Coupeville, Friends of Ebey’s, Ebey’s Landing Trust Board, Penn Cove Water Festival, and others who loved Tokitae. Salmon Ceremony for Tokitae YouTube LIVESTREAM.
September 22: Tribute to the Spirit of Sk’aliCh’elh’tenaut. Welcoming Home Our Relative. Held in Bellingham, Washington, by the Lummi Nation “in Honor of our qwe’lholmechen (orca) relative, if you are so moved to, wear black & white or your Sk’aliCh’elh’tenaut gear.” POSTPONED; a new date to be announced.
UPDATE: Construction and Funding of CWR’s new research vessel
Our MOST IMPORTANT orca research tool
In our changing research world, where the whales are more spread out and spend less time in their core summer habitat waters, we need a vessel that travels further, faster, and in various weather conditions. Our new under-construction LIFE PROOF boat will meet these challenges. Read CWR’s Research Director Dr. Michael Weiss’ BLOG New vessel will open up new opportunities for Center for Whale Research fieldwork to learn more.
The Vessel: LIFE PROOF BOATS are custom-made. The Center for Whale Research has specified the design and instrument requirements to meet our on-the-water safety and science needs for decades to come.
Vessel Delivery: The approximate 18-month construction schedule will see us take possession of our new research vessel in late fall 2024.
Vessel Fundraising: We invite your financial gift toward the cost of this vital research equipment upgrade/update. Money donated will directly support the purchase of CWR’s new research vessel. The generous donations made to date total $157,000 ($47,000 from our goal).
Ken Balcomb, CWR Founder (1940-2022): The [Boston] Whalers have done the job superbly, but the time is near to retire them. With the Resident’s expanded in-season geographical range, it is necessary for the Center [for Whale Research] to have and use a vessel capable of traveling wider distances quickly and safely and has increased working deck area.
We are sincerely grateful to those who have donated to CWR Research Vessel FUND.
We genuinely appreciate your support.
BEST In-Season Orca Shots
These are some of the BEST 2023 Orca BEHAVIORS captured in pictures from June through September by the Center for Whale Research’s on-the-water research staff.
Center for Whale Research MEMBERS can DOWNLOAD Tail Swipe at a Harbor seal at the bottom of this newsletter.
getting to KNOW US
the Center for Whale Research’s Summer 2023 INTERNS
In most issues of the WHALE Report, we feature a Center for Whale Research team member or volunteer. This time, we focus on CWR’s three 2023 Summer INTERNS.
Interns have been a part of the Center for Whale Research operation from the beginning. Each has and does play an important role during our intense summer workload. It’s an excellent opportunity for these individuals to gain real-world experience toward their education.
CWR 2023 Interns Q & A
We asked our Summer 2023 INTERNS questions about their education, time on San Juan Island, and experiences with orcas. The answers are listed alphabetically according to their last name.
CWR's 2023 Summer INTERNS (left to right):
Molly Henling, Rachel John, and Alyssa Kelley.
Q. Where are you from? What university did you attend, and what did you study? How will your CWR internship advance your career aspirations?
A. Molly Henling (MH): I am from Seattle and attended the University of Washington. I majored in Wildlife Conservation and minored in Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, American Indian Studies, and Quantitative Sciences. I have been working in the wildlife field since graduating and am pursuing a career in wildlife biology. The CWR internship allows me to advance my knowledge in behavioral research, data analysis, scientific writing, field techniques, and scientific communication which are vital for my career path.
A. Rachel John (RJ): I’m from Seattle, so I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and even visited the San Juan Islands a few times with my family. I went to San Diego State University for my undergraduate degree and studied marine biology. I started working at CWR as an intern last summer after graduating. After completing my second season, I am about to start grad school, where I will continue studying the Southern Residents.
A. Alyssa Kelley (AK): I am from Long Island, New York. I first attended Stony Brook University for my bachelor’s degree in biology, then went across the pond to the University of Exeter in England for my master’s in animal behavior. This internship has given me the opportunity to learn valuable and unique research skills for applying animal behavior study toward wildlife conservation. CWR is on the cutting edge with respect to techniques used in this area.
Q. Did you know much about the Center for Whale Research before applying for an internship?
A. MH: I have followed research and updates from the Center for Whale Research for around a decade. It has been my dream/goal to work and be involved with CWR for just as long.
A. RJ: I grew up obsessed with the Southern Residents and have known about the Center for Whale Research and their research connected to them for years. However, I didn’t know much about the work specifics or what kind of data they collected until I began working with them.
A. AK: I have followed the organization for many years after hearing about it from Darren Croft, one of my lecturers when studying at the University of Exeter. My intention had been to pursue a master’s degree in order to someday study killer whales, and the more I delved into CWR’s history and accomplishments, the more I wanted to work with them.
Q. What are your CWR intern duties?
A. MH/RJ/AK: On a typical day, we meet in the CWR ID office in the morning and work on cataloging photographs or drone footage we have taken during whale encounters. Everyone is responsible for pulling their ID photos and adding them to the individual whale’s ID folder. Depending on the situation, CWR staff or interns examine drone footage for IDs and relevant occurrences. Interns also work on independent projects during their field season. We spend time gathering and analyzing our project data.
We also pay attention to news about orcas in the area. If orcas of photo-ID or drone video interest are in the area, we pack up the necessary equipment and head for the CWR research boat docked at Snug Harbor.
Interns are responsible for updating the encounter log book from when we leave the dock until our return, with information on when and where encounters started/ended and notes on the whales seen. When on the water, we scan for the whale(s) we are looking for and ensure the research permit flag is put up once we are at the encounter scene. We often get the chance to take ID photos using a CWR camera. The intern assisting with drone work fills out the drone log book with flight information and helps launch, catch, and spot the drone while it is in the air. Upon return, we charge all equipment batteries in preparation for the next orca encounter and download everything recorded onto the computer network. Then, we start cataloging again.
We also spend one day a week at the ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center in town as science communicators, talking to visitors about the whales, salmon, and dams.
Q. Any moments that stand out while volunteering at the ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center in Friday Harbor?
A. MH: I have been passionate about dam removal and river restoration on the Lower Snake River since high school. I had the pleasure of meeting visitors from all around the country who knew about the Lower Snake River dams and the plight of Pacific Northwest salmon. The staff at the CWR Education Center is incredibly knowledgeable. One staff member helped me ID a blurry, poor-quality 2015 photo of three Bigg’s orcas!
A. RJ: Earlier in the season, I had the opportunity to be on a Zoom call with a first-grade class as a “whale scientist” to answer some of their questions, and it was so much fun. Honestly, any opportunity I’ve had to interact with kids and teach them about whales has been my favorite. We play a game with kids where they can earn a prize from our “treasure chest.” It’s always so fun to see their reactions.
A. AK: Every opportunity when speaking with the public about CWR’s work is a little bit different, and you quickly pick up on how to respond to varying age groups and levels of knowledge regarding orcas. A surprising number of young kids knew tons of facts about them. I loved educating people who were fascinated with killer whales but were hearing details about their complex social lives for the first time.
Molly Henling took this picture of L94 and her calf L127 during 2023 OS Encounter #44 on August 17.
Q. Was there one experience or orca behavior that left you speechless?
A. MH: Every time I see the whales, it’s one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had. The first time I saw orcas from the research boat, I was definitely speechless. During the next two days, I saw 74 Southern Residents, including the two new L pod babies. Recently, I heard surface vocalizations from J35, J57, J47, and J49 while chasing a salmon. Even watching the drone footage, I observe fascinating behaviors that I would never see otherwise. There are no words to describe my experiences besides how incredibly grateful I am to be here.
A. RJ: Every time I’m on the water! In all seriousness, I could see the same behavior a million times over, and I would still react the same way. Most recently, I was on an encounter with J pod off the west side of SJI, and we heard surface vocalizations—I was genuinely speechless and smiling so hard! It’s always cool to hear surface vocalizations, but this time was particularly special. We had been spending a good amount of time with four particular whales—mom J35, young J57, and juvenile males J47 and J49—we had just watched them by drone successfully hunt and share a salmon, then roll around and be social with each other. J57’s tiny pecs and flukes flashed above the water as he cartwheeled and rolled around, which was so cute. Then we heard surface vocalizations, which was icing on the cake.
A. AK: Our impromptu encounter with the Southern Residents on the evening of July 4 was definitely the most incredible and breathtaking experience I have had so far. Sara Hysong-Shimazu was on the research vessel with us, and there were no other boats on the water by the time we met up with the whales. The groups we saw were extremely social and surface active, with so much excitement in the air. Being out there at sunset in such perfect conditions and surrounded by the orcas I had loved from afar for so long was the most beautiful sight; I will never forget it!
Rachel John took this shot of T69C’s flukes near Vancouver Island during 2023 OS Encounter #46.
. . . after interacting with more people at the ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center, I’ve realized that a lot of people have had their attention directed towards (mistakenly) blaming the whale watch industry when the issues of the salmon and the dams are MUCH more crucial to the survival of the Southern Residents!
— Rachel John
Q. Have you seen orcas before coming to San Juan Island? Have you had time to get “connected” to a particular Salish Sea whale?
A. MH: I saw Southern Resident killer whales once from shore in Seattle, from a very far distance. I have been following news/research about the Southern Resident and the Bigg’s populations for a long time, and my absolute favorite whale was J50. After seeing the whales on the water and watching drone footage, I definitely have a soft spot for J56. From the Bigg’s population, I really enjoyed T69C, who blew my mind with his giant dorsal fin and fluke.
A. RJ: I had only seen orcas twice in my life before coming to San Juan Island, but I had never experienced anything like San Juan Island before. I feel extremely connected to a few Salish Sea whales—J47 “Notch” and L72 “Racer” are my “favorite” Southern Residents, and the T75Bs are my “favorite” Bigg’s killer whales. It’s funny to talk about our “favorite” whales because, at the end of the day, we care equally about every individual in both populations. Experiences and emotions create the feeling of a “strong” connection with individual whales. For example, my first encounter on the water with whales when I got to SJI was with the T75Bs. While it was a great encounter (T75B4 was doing little baby breaches around the boat!), it was also special because it was my first. Something about that has left me feeling an especially strong connection to that family.
A. AK: I had never seen wild orcas before arriving in Friday Harbor and, in fact, had never visited the Pacific Northwest. Every encounter I had this summer was so special, but in early July, we were with members of J and L pods off San Juan Island, and I saw L119 and L94 with their new calves. The L pod babies already have such personalities; watching them is always very amusing. The day that L94 swam up to the research vessel to check us out with baby L127, then unexpectedly went right under the boat with her, solidified the two of them as my favorite pair. I was stunned to see them come so close, and it’s a memory that makes me smile every time I think about it.
Q. How did you make out taking pictures of orcas? Do you have a favourite shot you took?
A. MH: It’s harder than I thought! I enjoy photographing wildlife and have experience using a telephoto lens to capture pictures of fast-moving targets for research. But add a small boat, and there are a whole lot of moving parts. I absolutely love taking ID photos. There are a lot of shots I cherish, one being an adorable look at the new L pod baby, L127.
A. RJ: I really enjoyed taking photos on the research boat—it’s physically demanding and focused work and often more frustrating than you would expect. But it’s also so rewarding! Taking photos and then going through them to identify individual whales is also the best way to practice identifying and “learning” the whales. My favorite shot I took was of T69C—he is MASSIVE!
A. AK: I came to this internship with very limited photography experience, so learning how to properly take ID photos was a real challenge. I saw improvement in the quality of my photographs over time, but I still need a lot more practice. My favorite photo was from a spectacular encounter with Bigg’s orcas on June 22. The whole group suddenly started breaching and making a huge ruckus. I captured a couple of individuals in mid-air; one in particular took off like a rocket. It really demonstrates just how high they can jump!
Q. Is there one lesson you learned about orcas and their environment that will stick with you when you leave San Juan Island?
A. MH: I’ve learned so much about the whales, but I think I will leave with an absolute fascination for killer whale behavior. Previous studies of whales and dolphins have had to use their surface behavior to determine their behavioral state. However, the drone footage allows us to see what the whales are actually doing while they’re right below the surface when we can’t see them from the boat. I have watched a lot of drone footage for my project, and I think I will leave with more questions about killer whale behaviors than answers! I cannot wait to see the future research the Center for Whale Research is able to carry out from this footage.
A. RJ: One of the most valuable things I learned is what type of misinformation regarding the orcas and their environment is most prevalent among the general public. This has helped me realize where we should focus our education efforts—both as an organization and as an individual. For example, after interacting with more people at the ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center, I’ve realized that a lot of people have had their attention directed towards (mistakenly) blaming the whale watch industry when the issues of the salmon and the dams are MUCH more crucial to the survival of the Southern Residents!
A. AK: The one major takeaway that resonated with me was how important salmon are for this marine ecosystem. So much weight falls on the status of Chinook salmon in the region, and recovery of the Southern Resident killer whale population simply isn’t possible without these fish making a comeback first. It won’t be an easy task, and certain actions are being met with serious resistance, but we have seen that rivers can thrive if the proper conservation measures are taken, and nature is left alone. I have hope that we will see change in our lifetime as long as people continue to spread the message and advocate for the species that need our help.
Alyssa Kelley captured this shot of a Bigg’s orca during 2023 OS Encounter #28 on June 22.
CWR’s ORCA SURVEY Lead Dave Ellifrit (above), Research Director Dr. Michael Weiss, Dr. Darren Croft, and Board Chair Howard Garrett spoke at SUPERPOD8 in July.
CWR OUTREACH In Action
The Center for Whale Research ADVOCATES tirelessly and relentlessly for the Southern Resident orcas’ needs by:*
Advocating for the Southern Residents’ primary need, advising governments to take appropriate actions to satisfy the whales’ survival requirement of an increased abundance of wild Chinook salmon. The most critical of these actions is for political leadership to order the breaching of the lower Snake River dams.
Conserving salmon habitat in the Salish Sea to support the long-term replenishment of the Southern Residents’ food supply (see Balcomb BIG SALMON Ranch).
Speaking boldly in the media concerning the struggling Southern Residents.
Delivering expert orca outreach and education to as many people as possible through published scientific research, WhaleResearch.com, social media, speaking engagements at events like SUPERPOD8 in July, traditional media, involvement in multi-media productions (e.g., Florian Graner’s film Elwha River Salmon Recovery), and ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center activities.
Center for Whale Research team members are frequently EDUCATORS, presenting our research findings at conferences, educational events, and other settings. During these times, we also speak boldly about the primary survival needs of the endangered and struggling Southern Resident orca community. In addition, through the ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center, WhaleResearch.com, and several social media channels, and in the media, CWR staff and volunteers are continuously trying to reach a large number of people with focused education and take-action messages.
SUPERPOD8 organizer Jeffrey Ventre tweeted before this year’s event: “This year, Blackfish movie turns ten. And on 15 December 2022, the world lost Ken Balcomb; renowned scientist, Orca Survey founder, father, sage, dam critic, whale Godfather, friend, environmentalist & mentor.”
During SUPERPOD8, July 18-21, 2023, in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, a world-class line-up of speakers, including representatives from the Center for Whale Research, celebrated Ken Balcomb’s life and Blackfish’s 10th anniversary.
Watch YouTube videos of Center for Whale Research staff and board of director presentations:
CENTER FOR WHALE RESEARCH / PAST, PRESENT, & FUTURE
LECTURES WITH EXPERTS
CWR’s ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center
Learn from the orca experts! The Center for Whale Research’s Lectures with Experts are educational . . . and fun!
Recent talks and events
July 18: Dr. Ingrid Visser, Orca Research Trust (New Zealand). Visser’s talk was entitled Orca in New Zealand.
July 29: Sam Ellis, University of Exeter (United Kingdom), lecturer at the Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour (Department of Psychology). Ellis’s presentation was entitled What can whales teach us about menopause?
VIRTUAL REALITY RETURNS!
CWR’s ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center
After an absence due to COVID-19, we are excited to offer Virtual Reality (VR) Whale Watching again! It's back and better than ever! Visitors can experience what it’s like being out on the water with Center for Whale Research staff during an exciting research encounter with Bigg’s Transient orcas, a whirlwind 5-minute ride aboard CWR’s research vessel when the T65Bs, T75Bs, and T75Cs arrive. See the whales surfacing blows, their dorsal fins slicing the calm water surface, and a rare, once-in-a-lifetime moment when the orcas swim around and under the boat! We promise it’s practically as good as being there in person.
AGE: Ages 5 and up can experience VR whale watching. HYGENE: The VR headsets are UV sanitized after each use.
ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center
(Click on the underlined links to learn more.)
Attractions, Exhibits, and Activities
Virtual Reality whale watching at CWR’s ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center in Friday Harbor.
Since opening in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, in the Summer of 2018, almost 31,000 people (9,000 visitors so far in 2023) from around the world have visited the ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island. Children and adults of all ages have experienced our attractions and activities. They’ve learned about killer whales from knowledgeable CWR staff and volunteers, familiarized themselves with orca biology, and learned how to help the struggling Southern Resident orca population.
The mission of the Center for Whale Research’s 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 47 years of research of killer whales (orcas) in the waters surrounding the San Juan Islands (Salish Sea).
ABOVE: Watch and listen to the Center for Whale Research’s Dr. Darren Croft’s exciting early-September video report on the revitalized Elwha River ecosystem.
(Video edited by 2023 CWR Intern Rachel John.)
BIG news from Balcomb BIG SALMON Ranch!
A CWR BIG LEGACY Project.
Center for Whale Research team members spent a week in September at Balcomb BIG SALMON Ranch along the Elwha River. Their visual observations confirm that salmon are successfully returning to the Elwha to spawn, and the fish are BIG!!
A brief tribute to CWR founder Ken Balcomb (1940-2022)
75 recent left- and right-side ID photographs of the Southern Resident orcas
Updated J, K, and L pod matriline charts
Information about how to identify orcas
Illustration of how to distinguish a male orca from a female
Pictures of some common orca behaviors
Current Southern Resident orca population chart
CWR Members and Donors (over $40) will be notified by email
when the Orca Survey ID GUIDE is available for download.
A Memorial Fund has been established in honor of Kenneth C. Balcomb III. Donations to this fund will carry his work forward for years to come.
The December 2022 issue of the WHALE Report focused entirely on remembering the Center for Whale Research’s founder Ken Balcomb. Since his passing, we have received hundreds and hundreds of comments on our Memory Board, social media pages, and via email. The news of his death has reached millions via international media coverage. Ken touched people all over the world. Thank you for your messages and Kenneth C. Balcomb III Memorial Fund donations.