CWR Member News // Published Quarterly

Sept //2018

the WHALE Report

Video taken under Center for Whale Research Permit 21238. Image extracted from video.

Aerial Observation Study

The Center for Whale Research's newest research study is using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (often referred to as “drones”) to study the behavior of the Southern Resident killer whales from a new perspective. 
Read details about the study below

a rare view

from overhead


We’re all sick of documenting dead and dying whales.
The science is clear.
All that’s left is generating the political will to act.
If I have one hope right now, it’s that J35’s story, and the attention it’s received, will go some way towards doing that [breaching the lower four dams on the Snake River].
- Michael Weiss 

July 2018: Center for Whale Research Field Biologist and Ph.D. candidate, Michael Weiss, comments about his and Dave Ellifrit's encounter with J35 on the day of her calf's death (see Encounter #52, July 24).

in this ISSUE


current CWR Action

The Center for Whale Research's number one priority is the continuation of the Orca Survey project. However, we are working very hard advocating for immediate action on the Chinook salmon recovery front. Also, we are actively reaching out to as many people as we can with a focused educational message, asking these individuals, like you, to take personal action to push positive change on the salmon issue, for the benefit of the Southern Resident orcas. See Members news (i.e., What other action can you take?) for some ideas about other things that you can do to help.​​

Speaking Out: During the summer months, CWR spoke tirelessly and relentlessly to what we believe could save the Southern Resident orca community: Partial recovery of regional Chinook salmon stocks. The following are a sampling of the CWR message.
  • June 14: CWR's Ken Balcomb attended Meeting #2 of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force in Olympia, Washington (Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force Meeting #2: Summary).
    Note. Ken Balcomb is a Task Force member.

  • July 18: Ken Balcomb spoke at Superpod 6 in the San Juan Community Theatre in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island. Those in attendance at Superpod 6, July 16-20, listened to an international group of scientists, filmmakers, authors, journalists, and orca advocates who want to see killer whales thrive in their natural habitat. Balcomb spoke on the subject of salmon abundance. View his and other Superpod 6 presentations on YouTube.  



"The activities of the past two weeks are just the whales telling the story that I could never tell..." 

Ken Balcomb referring to the death of J35's calf while speaking at Meeting #3 of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force on August 7.

"We have to do something about getting more salmon [Chinook] available to them... It's going to have be restoring the fish population to at least some semblance of what they use to be." 

Ken Balcomb's final comment about the J35 and J16 stories during a King5 News Seattle broadcast on August 3.

 to each & EVERY ONE of you


Without the generous support by all of you - our members and donators - the Center for Whale Research would not have the financial means to advocate on behalf of the Southern Resident orcas in the various ways that we have and will continue to do. CWR's most recent and visible actions are shown in this edition of the WHALE Report. 


Outreach and Education:

The Center for Whale Research opened the Orca Survey Outreach & Education Center in Friday Harbor in July 2018.

The official Grand Opening of the Orca Survey Outreach & Education Center, including a ribbon cutting ceremony, took place on Tuesday, August 21. See a slideshow of the Grand Opening.


The outreach and education center has welcomed hundreds and hundreds of visitors during the past two months. Our staff of trained naturalists and volunteers and CWR staff have been on hand seven days a week answering questions and asking visitors to support CWR's efforts to assist in the recovery of the Southern Resident orcas.


We hope that the information provided to visitors will “trickle up” to elected officials and bureaucrats that set natural resource policy resulting in appropriate management decisions. Current decisions by governments are forcing our beloved SRKW into slow-motion extinction due to vanishing food resources (primarily Chinook salmon).

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 43 years of research of killer whales (orcas) in the waters surrounding the San Juan Islands.

Orca Survey Outreach & Education Center is located at 185 South 1st Street, Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, Washington (across from the Friday Harbor ferry terminal, between the restaurants The Hungry Clam and Mr Believable's).


A bunch of the CWR team outside the Orca Survey Outreach & Education Center.


CWR's Dave Ellifrit and Katie Jones at the Orca Survey Outreach & Education Center official opening on August 21.



2018 Encounter summary

20180712KCB_JF2-066_K21 and Mt Baker.jpg

K21 and Mt. Baker photograph by Ken Balcomb. Please remember this image is for personal use only.

Encounters in 2018:
64 Encounters through August 25, 2018 
  • Southern Resident killer whale encounters: 28

  • Transient killer whale encounters: 36


Encounters since the WHALE Report/June 2018, #35 thru #64, are marked on the map below with red numbered locator dots (desktop version only). These locator dots are active links to the full Encounter Summary.

SRKW Population update

Southern Resident orca population: 75 (July 2018*)
J Pod = 23, K Pod = 18, L Pod = 34


During the past three months, the Southern Resident orca population declined by one, from 76 to 75, with the loss of L92, a 23-year-old male (see Encounter #37, June 11, 2018).
From January through August, CWR staff encountered Southern Resident orcas 28 times in inland waters. So far in 2018, J Pod has been seen 26 times, K Pod 8 times, and L Pod 6 times.


In the three years before this year (January-August), CWR staff observed and documented SRKW in inland waters as follows: 2017 - 26, 2016 - 40, 2015 - 39.


Since the last the WHALE Report (June 1), researchers have encountered the Southern Residents 17 times. 


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

Video footage of part of a J Pod encounter, including J16 and J50, near Secretary Island,
B.C. on
 August 18; see 
Encounter #59 (video taken by Ken Balcomb).

J50 Update: Four-year-old, J50, calf of J16, continues to look unhealthy. She is thin, exhibiting signs of malnutrition. She continues to forage while traveling near her mother. 

Also, maybe you can ID the whales you see?

With the help of the new CWR Orca ID App.

4 screens.png

The Orca ID App is free. However, CWR would gladly accept a donation to help support future app development, our ongoing Orca Survey research, and our other outreach and education initiatives.

CWR is also interested in receiving Transient killer whale sighting reports 

The Center for Whale Research is also interested in receiving Transient killer whale sighting reports when any of these animals are in the central Salish Sea and Puget Sound areas. Please email the information gathered (i.e., date, time, location, number of whales, photographs) to the Center for Whale Research: or


Members can assist the Center for Whale Research in gathering SRKW sighting information

If you see any Southern Resident killer whales during 2018, wherever the whales are roaming, please notify the Center for Whale Research ( or with the information you have gathered (i.e., date, time, location, number of whales, photographs, etc.). This information is valuable for correlation with Chinook salmon abundance and documentation of habitat use. 



from the SCIENCE desk

A compilation of Aerial Observation Study footage taken by the CWR drone in July and August 2018 of Southern Resident killer whales. 

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 2018 Orca Survey: photo-identification images of members of the SRKW community; record observed births and deaths; gather detailed information about the behavior and ecology of the animals, including information on 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.


Aerial Observation Study

This summer, the Center for Whale Research launched its newest research study, aimed at using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, often referred to as “drones”) to study the behavior of the Southern Resident killer whales from a new perspective. This study by the CWR and researchers from the University of Exeter will help us better understand these animals’ complex lives, revealing factors that influence survival, reproduction, social structure, and the evolution of this species unique life-history.
Read more details about the study



RECENTLY published studies

The Center for Whale Research has involvement in these recent publications:


Analyses of ovarian activity reveal repeated evolution of post-reproductive lifespans in toothed whales published in August 2018 by authors Samuel Ellis, Daniel W. Franks, Stuart Nattrass, Thomas E. Currie, Michael A. Cant, Deborah Giles, Kenneth C. Balcomb, and Darren P. Croft. The final sentence in the Abstract states: "Our study is the first evidence of a significant post-reproductive lifespan in beluga whales and narwhals which, when taken together with the evidence for post-reproductive lifespan in killer whales, doubles the number of non-human mammals known to exhibit post-reproductive lifespans in the wild." 


Using aerial photogrammetry to detect changes in body condition of endangered southern resident killer whales published in April 2018 by authors Holly Fearnbach, John W. Durban, David K. Ellifrit, Kenneth C. Balcomb.
A portion of the Abstract states: 
“To measure changes in body condition, we collected 1635 measurable images from a helicopter hovering 230−460 m above whales, and linked these to individuals with distinctive natural markings.” 


Inbreeding in an endangered killer whale population published in March 2018  by authors M. J. Ford, K. M. Parsons, E. J.Ward, J. A. Hempelmann, C. K. Emmons, M. Bradley Hanson, K. C. Balcomb & L. K. Park. The Abstract begins: “There are genetic risks associated with small population sizes, including loss of genetic diversity and inbreeding depression. The southern resident killer whale Orcinus orca population is a group of ~80 whales listed as ‘endangered’ under the U.S. Endangered Species Act." 


Postreproductive lifespans are rare in mammals published in January 2018 by authors Samuel Ellis, Daniel W. Franks, Stuart Nattrass, Michael A. Cant, Destiny L. Bradley, Deborah Giles, Kenneth C. Balcomb, and Darren P. Croft. The study found that: “. . . post-reproductive stages are rare in mammals and are limited to humans and a few species of toothed whales [Southern Resident killer whales]. By resolving this long-standing debate, we hope to provide clarity for researchers in the field of evolutionary biology and a solid foundation for further studies investigating the evolution and adaptive significance of this unusual life history trait.” 


Other recent publications related to killer whales:


Social relationships and death-related behaviour in aquatic mammals: a systematic review published in July 2018 by authors Melissa A. L. V. Reggente, Elena Papale, Niall McGinty, Lavinia Eddy, Giuseppe Andrea de Lucia, Chiara Giulia Bertulli. Part of the abstract reads: “Non-cetaceans, characterized by a short maternal investment, were observed to protect the dead (defending it from external attacks), while cetaceans spent much longer with their offspring and display carrying (hauling, spinning, mouthing with the carcass and diving with it) and breathing-related (lifting and sinking the carcass) activities with the dead generally in association with other conspecifics.” 



getting to KNOW US

CWR's Michael Weiss

Michael received his Bachelor’s degree in biology from Reed College in 2016, following the completion of a thesis on the social structure of Southern Resident killer whales. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Exeter in South West England, United Kingdom, where his work centers around the evolutionary and conservation consequences of killer whale social structure. His work centers around developing statistical methods for analyzing social structure using the CWR’s long-term dataset, as well as gaining new insights into killer whale behavior using footage from unmanned aerial systems.

Meet the entire Center for Whale Research team

with Michael Weiss

Q: Where were you born and raised, and when and how did you become interested in whales?

A: I was born and raised in Florida, where I think my interest started from watching bottlenose dolphins swim by my house. Even as a kid, I think it's easy from their behavior to get a sense that there are some complicated things happening in dolphin society, and I desperately wanted to figure it out.


Q: What led you to study biology in college, and pursue your doctorate in killer whale behavior? 

A: I've been interested in animal behavior for as long as I can remember, and have always found whales to be particularly interesting. I've worked around the Southern Residents since 2012 and did my undergraduate thesis on the social structure of the Southern Residents, so I jumped at the opportunity to continue studying the behavior of these fascinating animals.


Q: How did you end up getting involved with the Centre for Whale Research? 

A: After completing my undergraduate work on the Southern Resident killer whales, I approached the Center about collaborating to expand my analysis using the extensive CWR database. I gave Ken [Balcomb] and Darren [Croft] a copy of my thesis and was invited to come on board as a Ph.D. student.


Q: Are there any particular killer whale behaviors that you find more interesting than others?

A: I find everything killer whales do fascinating. However, something I've been puzzled by is the occasional long-term associations between whales that aren't family members. Resident killer whales live in kinship structured societies, so cases where unrelated individuals stay associated for months and sometimes weeks on end, are kind of a mystery. That complexity is something that keeps me interested and reminds me that we still have a lot to learn about their society.

Q: What are a couple of the recent things what researchers have learned about Southern Resident killer whale behavior?

A: I think we're still learning how important social partners are to killer whales. We've recently found that male killer whales with fewer social partners have a higher risk of dying within a given year, especially when salmon is less abundant. We're still unraveling how social structure and social position effect all levels of killer whale life, from survival to reproduction.


Q: How do you maintain a fact-based focus on the Southern Residents when their survival seems more at risk every day?

A: The key for me is to remember that, while feeling and emotion are great tools for driving action, those actions have to be driven by facts to work. If we abandon fact-based solutions and the science behind them, no amount of action is going to save these whales.


Q: Do you have a favorite Southern Resident orca encounter? 

A: My favorite encounter is probably from a few years back, when I was watching whales from Lime Kiln. The entirety of 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.


Michael Weiss on the water (above) and flying the CWR UAV.

Who pilots CWR's Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (the “drone")?

Answer: Tom Cogan and Chris Teren


Tom Cogan retired from Boeing six years ago as the Director of Airplane Product Development. He is an FAA licensed private pilot

and FAA licensed commercial UAS pilot and has been flying radio-controlled aircraft (airplanes, sailplanes, helicopters, and drones) for over 40 years.


Chris Teren is a professional fine arts photographer ( specializing in real estate and aerial photography/video in the San Juan Islands. Chris is an FAA licensed private pilot and FAA licensed commercial UAS pilot.


Before undertaking any flights for the Aerial Observation Study, the permit required the pilots to complete a minimum of 25 hours of flying time and 50 flights with the DJI Matrice 600 Pro to establish its reliability and suitability for the research. As of August 26, the drone has accumulated over 43 hours flying time on 115 flights. A spotter visually tracks the drone on each flight to ensure safe operation and maintain visual line-of-sight as required by the permit.