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the WHALE Report

Dec //2018

CWR Member News // Published Quarterly

 to each of you 

from all of us

Without your generous support, the Center for Whale Research would not have the financial means to advocate on behalf of the Southern Resident orcas in the ways that we do. Be assured that your money is carefully spent. In this edition of the WHALE Report, we have listed some of our high profile actions in 2018. 

Share your love of Orcas this holiday season and give the gift of MEMBERSHIP!

Here is how it works:

Once you have completed your CWR Membership donation, you will be directed to a form where you can let us know the details: name of the recipient and date you want us to send your special orca enthusiast an email letting them know they have been gifted a CWR Membership.

in this ISSUE



I kept hoping that you would simply initiate a phone call to LT General Semonite (the commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers) to get the facts about who has the authority to order bypass of these dams, but it seems that the consensus of the Task Force was to establish a time-consuming several year stakeholder process to address issues associated with the possible breaching or removal of the four lower Snake River dams, rather than get the facts now and/or make a bold recommendation.
- Ken Balcomb

Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research Founder/Principal Investigator, in a November 11 letter to Washington Governor Jay Inslee about the year one Report and Recommendations of the Southern Resident Killer Whales Recovery and Task.


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 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.​

Southern Resident Killer Whale Population: 74*
J pod = 22, K pod = 18, L pod = 34

During the past three months, the Southern Resident orca population declined by one with the loss of four-year-old J50 (see the final encounter with J50 on September 3 near San Juan Island: Encounter #71). Between January and November, CWR field staff encountered SRKW 45 times in inland waters (J Pod - 40 times, K Pod - 15 times, L Pod - 14 times). Since the last the WHALE Report (September 2018), field researchers have encountered the SRKWs 17 times. 


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


2018 SIGHTINGS Summary

By Jane Cogan, CWR Data Specialist (November 2018)

2018 Southern Resident Killer Whale Sightings


In 2018, Southern Resident killer whales were present in the “core summer habitat” on nearly 70 of the 183 days in the April – September time frame, with the number of individual whales present ranging from five whales to nearly 60 whales. Traditionally at least some of these whales would be present in and around the San Juan Islands or southern Strait of Georgia nearly every day during this six-month period; however, as shown in the middle graph, the presence of the Southern Resident killer whales in the “core summer habitat” has generally been declining in the past 10-15 years. These trends in attendance parallel the trends in Fraser River Chinook salmon abundance, as measured by the Albion Chinook Test Fishery on the Fraser River.


Other notes of interest:

• For the first time in a long time, no members of the Southern Residents were sighted in the “core summer habitat” during the month of May. Although the historical records are subject to some interpretation, it is very rare not to have J pod whales in inland waters on at least some days in May.

• Members of a small group of five L pod whales that includes the L54s, L84, and L88 have not yet made an appearance in inland waters in 2018 (within the range of CWR staff members based on San Juan Island). However, members of this group of whales have been photographed by colleagues and CWR sighting supporters throughout the year, and as recently as September 2018.

• While in inland waters, the routes to and from the Fraser River were less predictable in 2018, with whales utilizing San Juan Channel as an alternate route both to and from the Fraser River on a few days and Rosario Strait as a return route on other days (resulting in fewer days in Haro Strait).

• L87 spent a brief time away from J pod whales, but he was with members of other pods.


As in past years, the most commonly sighted whales in 2018 were members of J pod. Of the three pods, K pod whales spent the least number of days in inland waters (lower graph).


On some days in the summer of 2018, the only Southern Resident killer whales present in inland waters were the J16s and/or J17s. On other days, these whales remained separated from larger groups of Southern Residents. These two small family groups each included two whales of concern. The matriarchs, J16 and J17, were shown by aerial photogrammetry to be in poor body condition in September 2018 (Reference 1). J16’s four-year-old daughter, J50, died in September and J17's offspring, J35, gave birth to a female calf in July, but the calf did not survive. J35 carried the dead neonate with her for more than two weeks.


Graphs prepared by Jane Cogan, Center for Whale Research. Derivative use requires approval.


Reference 1: Field Update! Southern Resident Killer Whale Health Assessments SR3 (SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation, and Research) in collaboration with NOAA Fisheries Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

2018 Transient or Bigg’s Killer Whale Sightings


In recent years, one or more groups of Transient or Bigg’s killer whales have been sighted somewhere in the central Salish Sea and/or Puget Sound nearly every day during April through September. 2018 was no exception (Killer Whale Presence graph). Although 2017 was a record year for Transient or Bigg’s killer whale sightings in the area, 2018 is not far behind with more than 800 different sightings confirmed by CWR as of mid-November (with more work to be done in coming months).


Unique Transient or Bigg’s killer whale sightings in 2018 (central Salish Sea and Puget Sound):

• Members of the T173 matriline were sighted on several different days, including one day by CWR staff Dave Ellifrit and Michael Weiss (Encounter #41). Except for T175, photographed in the area in 2012, these were the first known sightings of these particular whales in the inland waters around southern Vancouver Island.

• Dave Ellifrit saw U36s, U56, U57, and U137 on one day: Encounter #90 (Special thanks to Jared Towers, DFO, for assisting in the identification of these whales, with this being the first documented sighting of these whales this far inside the waters of the Salish Sea).

• As of mid-November, more than 200 individual Transient or Bigg’s killer whales have been confirmed to be present in this region in 2018, with additional photo confirmation work continuing for several more months.


Sighting Supporters

The Center for Whale Research has maintained a killer whale sighting database for more than 40 years, with photo contributions from more than 500 people during that time. Sighting reports of killer whales in the area, in particular reports with photos, are very much appreciated. Please consider sending your reports and photos to Jane Cogan (srkwproject@gmail.com or jane@whaleresearch.com).

If you happen to be on the water, please be sure and follow the Be Whale Wise guidelines in the vicinity of marine mammals of any kind (US: bewhalewise.org; Canada: pac.dfo-mpo.gc.ca).


2018 SRKW & Transient/Bigg's Killer Whale Encounters: 102 (as of November 30, 2018) 

• Southern Resident killer whale encounters: 45

• Transient killer whale encounters: 57


Encounters with killer whales in inland waters since the WHALE Report/September 2018, Encounter #65 - #102, are marked on the map below: Encounters with Southern Residents are marked with red numbered locator dots and Transients with black numbered locator dots. These locator dots are active links to the full Encounter Summary (desktop version only).


Best of the Best

Photo Gallery of 2018

download our FAVORITE photo in MEMBERSHIP news

from the SCIENCE desk (continued):

SRKW Aerial Observation Study

In partnership with scientists at the University of Exeter and York in the UK, the Center for Whale Research has been using an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) to collect new video documenting the behavior of the Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW).


Depending on the water conditions the UAV allows us to observe behavior up to a depth of 10 meters and the SRKW spend a significant proportion of their time within this surface zone. Indeed only approximately 6% of dives have a maximum depth of greater than 10 meters, and these dives are typically only a couple of minutes long. Using the UAV, we can observe a significant proportion of the daily lives of the SRKW and all key behaviors such as foraging and socializing frequently happen in this 10-meter surface zone. The UAV provides us with a non-invasive way of studying the whales, and it is unlikely that the whales are even aware of the UAV flying overhead let alone disturbed by it.


Over the summer we made a total of 121 UAV flights which has allowed us to capture behaviors which we could not see from within the boat. For example, we have been able to video the detailed behaviors used when hunting for salmon. An example can be seen in the video at the 3:00-minute mark. The video shows an adult whale catch a salmon then bite it in half to allow a young whale to eat. Somewhat confusingly, the larger whale in the footage (J46) is the niece of the younger one (J53) – as J53 is the youngest daughter of a female, J17, that gave birth to J46’s mother years earlier (J28/1993-2016). In the video, the pair chases a salmon until the fish is finally captured. J46 then holds the fish in her mouth and bites it in half, leaving part of it to float back to J53.


We are extremely excited by the new data we will be able to collect using the UAV which will provide new insight into the factors that affect the survival and reproductive success of this critically endangered population. This information is essential to inform future management strategies.


Read more details about the SRKW Aerial Observation Study and who pilots CWR's UVA.

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

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:


Noise exposure from commercial shipping for the southern resident killer whale population published in November 2018 by authors Simone Cominelli, Rodolphe Devillers, HaraldYurk, Alexander MacGillivray, Lauren McWhinnie, and Rosaline Canessa. Part of the abstract reads: “This study assesses vessel-noise exposure levels for Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) in the Salish Sea. Kernel Density Estimation (KDE) was used to delineate SRKW summer core areas.” 


Pre-oil spill baseline profiling for contaminants in Southern Resident killer whale fecal samples indicates possible exposure to vessel exhaust published in November 2018 by authors Jessica I. Lundin, Gina M.Ylitalo, Deborah A. Giles, Elizabeth A.Seely, Bernadita F. Anulacion, Daryle T. Boyd, Jennifer A. Hempelmann, Kim M. Parsons, Rebecca K. Booth, Samuel K. Wasser. Part of the abstract reads: “Exposure to contaminants and risk of an oil spill are identified threats. Previous studies on contaminants have largely focused on legacy pollutants. Here we measure polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in whale fecal (scat) samples. PAHs are a diverse group of hazardous compounds (e.g., carcinogenic, mutagenic), and are a component of crude and refined oil as well as motor exhaust.” 


Share your love of Orcas this holiday season and give the gift of MEMBERSHIP!

Here is how it works:

Once you have completed your CWR Membership donation, you will be directed to a form where you can let us know the details: name of the recipient and date you want us to send your special orca enthusiast an email letting them know they have been gifted a CWR Membership.

getting to KNOW US

CWR's Katie Jones 

Katie graduated with a degree in Zoology from Colorado State University in 2004. She completed a humpback whale research internship in Hawai'i and spent several years as a research assistant with the Center for Whale Research. Katie began working as a naturalist in the San Juan Islands in 2001. In addition to her work in the San Juan Islands – currently as Education/Outreach Manager of CWR’s Orca Survey Outreach & Education Center (OSC) – she has worked as a naturalist in Mexico and Alaska educating travelers about everything from gray whales to grizzly bears. 

Q: Was it whales that brought you to San Juan Island? Where were you born and raised? 

A: I was born and raised in Montrose, Colorado where of course whales were considered to be pretty exotic. Whales are definitely the reason I ended up on San Juan Island. I have loved orcas ever since I was a little kid - I am from the “Free Willy generation” after all! I remember the first time I saw that movie. It wasn’t the story so much as it was the wild orca footage at the beginning and end of the film that captured my imagination. When I found out the orcas featured in the Free Willy films were Southern Resident orcas, there was no going back after that! I had orcas and San Juan Island on the brain!


Q: What has the response by visitors to the new Orca Survey Outreach & Education Center been like? Do you have a favorite part of your job as the Education/Outreach Manager?  

A: The response has been amazing. We’ve been embraced by visitors from near and far, and people really enjoy the content that we have available - especially the drone footage, the orca skull, and dorsal fin matching games. My favorite part of being the manager is meeting people from all over the world and being able to share the plight of Southern Resident orcas with them. It’s very rewarding to see the light bulb go on over people’s heads. Hopefully, by the time people walk out the door, they’ve become advocates for Southern Residents orcas and the Salish Sea.


Q: Prior to your current role with the Center for Whale Research you were a research assistant with the organization. What exactly did you do?  

A: As a research assistant, I helped with data collection/entry and photo ID (both taking and organizing/processing photographs). I also worked with Earthwatch team volunteers that would visit each summer to assist the Center for Whale Research with data collection.


Q: Do you have a “most important thing to remember” message to share with CWR members, and that you try to communicate to visitors to the Orca Survey Outreach & Education Center? 

A: People ask me all the time if it’s too late to save the Southern Resident orcas: “Is there any hope?” There is always hope as long as people care about them, learn about them, share information about them and their plight, and are willing to act on their behalf. Don’t give up on them, even with all the bad news as of late. I remind people that it’s not that difficult to make a difference. There are little things that each of us can do in our daily lives that can make a big impact not only for the Southern Resident orcas but for the environment in general. We have to be willing to go out of our comfort zones just a little bit and make some changes. If you would like to know what you can do to help Southern Resident orcas, check out the CWR website! There are lots of good actions listed there that you can easily make a part of your daily life


Q: You are often seen with a camera with a long lens attached. How did you become so accomplished as a wildlife and nature photographer?

A: Lots and lots and LOTS of time and patience learning about my photography equipment and my subjects - oh, and lots of memory cards and hard drive space. I love being outside and seeing what nature will throw my way. There’s something very special about capturing a moment in time that encompasses such awe and wonder. It’s wonderful being able to go back and relive those moments through photographs and sharing them with others. Above all, I am absolutely indebted to good friends who are accomplished photographers who have very patiently shared their knowledge and ideas and have been so graciously willing to help me when I was at my wits end with my equipment and settings. 

Q: Do you have a favorite subject to photograph beside whales? 

A: I love photographing wildlife in general. I am a very firm believer in ethical wildlife photography. I would really prefer my subjects never know I’m there (that’s what those long lenses are for!). Photographs showing animals living within their environment are really my favorite types of images. Don’t get me wrong, those portrait shots of animals are wonderful, but there’s something about drawing the connection between that animal and where they live that may potentially help create advocates for a particular species and their habitat.


Q: Have you had any close calls with bears? 

A: While kayaking down the Kenai River in Alaska, I happened across a huge male coastal Brown bear as he was fishing for salmon in the river. I guess I was a little more interesting than the salmon he was trying to catch because he began to follow me down the river. There was one point where he plunged into the water making his way toward me. I was very glad that the speed of the current picked up at that moment and swept me down the river at a greater pace. The bear gave up and went back to fishing. I’m not sure if that qualifies as a close call, but it definitely had my adrenaline going!


Q: Can you tell us about one of your most memorable experiences with killer whales? 

A: One of my most favorite encounters with killer whales happened in August of 2003. The Southern Residents had been gone from the inland waters of the Salish Sea for several days. Late in the day, we received word that a superpod was inbound from Victoria. We met the whales off of South Beach near San Juan Island. I remember J1 (“Ruffles”) and J2 (“Granny”) were in the lead. The sun was setting, and it was such a beautiful evening. Suddenly J1 breached! And then ALL the whales began to breach and socialize. It seemed everywhere I looked there was a whale or two in the air. I remember looking toward the horizon and the sunset and seeing whales in the air. It appeared as if they were flying over the sun! It was incredible! This was long before my photography days so I don’t have a scrap of footage from the encounter, but I do have lovely memories of it, and that’s what counts!


Q: Do you have a current favorite Southern Resident orca? What makes this whale your favorite?  

A: YES! Without a doubt, L87 (“Onyx”) is my favorite whale. I’ve had many amazing encounters with this beautiful guy. His story is one of defying the odds. He’s perhaps a bit of an underdog when it comes to his social status (his mother having left him an orphan at the young age of 12). Yet he survived the death of his mother and formed relationships with some of the oldest and most distinguished matriarchs of J pod and K pod even though he’s an L pod whale. He’s a survivor. I love that.

Katie Jones outdoors; hard at work at the Orca Survey Outreach & Education Center in Friday Harbor, SJI.

Q&A with Katie Jones

Katie Jones photographs: Orca in mid-air in the Salish Sea and a Brown bear on the shoulder of an Alaska highway.

Members of the Orca Survey Outreach & Education Center team, left to right: Dave Ellifrit (CWR photo ID specialist), Kara Burgess, Katie Jones, Parin Columna, and Lodie Gilbert (far right) - flanking Ken Balcomb and YouTube producers Morgane and Lea from France. See YouTube video: #WeAreTheOrca.

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

185 South 1st St, Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, WA 

(across from the Friday Harbor ferry terminal, between the restaurants The Hungry Clam and Mr. Believable's). 
Fall 2018 Hours: Thursday-Sunday, 10:00 am - 4:00 pm


getting to KNOW THEM: L87

In each issue of the WHALE Report, we feature one member of the Southern Resident killer whale community.
This issue our focus is L87 (Katie's favorite SRKW).

L87: Left side (finger) and right side (closed) saddle patch

L87 // Male - L22 matriline 

  • Born 1992 (only SRKW born that year), 26-years-old

  • Mother L32 (est. 1955-2005) 

  • One probable living sibling: L22 (est. born 1971); three deceased siblings: L44, L56, L63

  • Not known to have fathered any offspring

  • After L32 died in 2005, L87 began traveling with K pod (2005 to 2009) and now travels with J pod (2010 to present); in 2018, L87 spent a brief time away from
    J pod, but was with members of K or L pod 

  • L87 identified by his finger (left side) and closed (right side) saddle patches; his dorsal fin is free of nicks/notches and is wider than normal at the base.  

In this video clip, Dr. Astrid van Ginneken talks about L87 Finding Acceptance with matriarchs in K and J pod (Center for Whale Research's Celebrating Science Workshop in Friday Harbor, July 2017). 
Dr. Astrid van Ginneken has worked with CWR since 1987 and is the co-principle investigator for Orca Survey.

Photo Gallery - L87

CWR Actions in 2018

The Center for Whale Research worked tirelessly and relentlessly advocating for immediate action by politicians to reverse the dramatic decline of Chinook salmon stocks (SRKWs prey of choice). CWR was front and center at each of the six meetings of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force (Ken Balcomb is a Task Force member); presented solutions to the plight of the SRKW at numerous events; and spoke out boldly in the media concerning the sick and starving animals within the Southern Resident orca community. Also, we reached out to as many people as we could with a focused educational message: through the Orca Survey Outreach & Education Center, through whalerearch.com, and through social media channels. We asked 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 What other action can you take? and MEMBERSHIP news for some ideas about other things that you can do to help.​​

"... We could fund a seal cull, or we could let an organism that has evolved for millions of years to kill seals very efficiently do what they are already doing ... while we're talking about potentially scapegoating an entire species of animals within the Salish Sea." 

CWR's Michael Weiss speaking about a potential pinniped cull in the Salish Sea during the public comment portion of Meeting #4 of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force.

Speaking Out:
Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force 


Event & Conference Presentations 


In The Media


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

Ken Balcomb interviewed by Q13 NEWS reporter Simone Del Rosario (see her series of SRKW reports) at the Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and ​Task Force meeting on Wednesday, October 17, in Tacoma, WA.

"Focusing on other factors, while politically attractive, as they are easily within reach and implemented, are likely to be as effective as putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound."
Dr. Darren Croft, Center for Whale Research Scientific Advisor - Animal Social Networks, stresses the importance of the Southern Resident Killer Whales Recovery and Task Force taking bold action to tackle the primary issue standing in the way of the orca's survival – the lack of Chinook salmon. This quote is from the article, The Future for Southern Residents, written by Croft and CWR Field Biologist/ Ph.D. Candidate, Michael Weiss, in a 2018 issue of The Journal of the San Juan Islands.
What other action can you take?
In addition to your financial support of CWR, you can do the following:


From the United States & other parts of the world:
  • CONNECT with state and federal politicians through CWR's Facebook page and Twitter feed, demanding that they breach the four lower Snake River dams ... in 2019! Learn the facts about how the Southern Residents will benefit from this act: Dam Breaching Essentials.

  • SIGN the DAMSENSE petition that will be sent to Washington State Governor Jay Inslee and Senator Patty Murray: Dammed to extinction, Southern Resident Orcas are starving. Time is running out! The petition stands at 690,000+ names. The original goal was 50,000; the new goal is 1,000,000 signatures.

  • ASK FOR CHANGE! Contact your elected representatives through the DAMSENSE website and ask state and federal officials to support the breaching of the four lower Snake River dams... in 2019! The Talking Points page on the DAMSENSE website provides helpful content for calling and messaging elected leaders and their staff.

  • Visit the GET INVOLVED webpage at DAMSENSE for other ways to take action. 

  • Support United States organizations who are making real progress on the issues of salmon and orca health and recovery:

Center for Whale Research


NRDC (National Resources Defense Council)


  • Educate your friends and family. A mighty voice for the Southern Resident orcas is a grassroots effort. The more people who become informed and involved, and speak out, the better chance the orcas have of living another day.
From Canada & other parts of the world:
  • Send a letter, phone, or e-mail the Minister of Environment & Climate Change, Catherine McKenna, and the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Jonathan Wilkinson, to demand the federal government comply with the law: the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans has no discretion when it comes to protecting the critical habitat of the Southern Resident orcas.

Contact: The Honourable Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment & Climate Change Canada, 200 Sacre-Coeur Boulevard, Gatineau, Quebec, KlA 0H3; 819-938-3813; ec.ministre-minister.ec@canada.ca

Contact: The Honourable Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 200 Kent Street, Station 15N100, Ottawa, Ontario, KlA 0E6; 866-266-6603 (Aquatic Species at Risk/Let's Talk Whales; min@dfo-mpo.gc.ca)

  • Visit the David Suzuki Foundation for Talking Points in planning your letter, call, or e-mail to Minister McKenna and Minister Wilkinson. And #JoinThePod.

  • Support Canadian organizations who are making real progress on the issues of salmon and orca health and recovery: