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the WHALE Report

March // 2020 

CWR Member News // Published Quarterly

MEGA Legacy 

Southern Residents most prolific male missing
and presumed deceased

CWR field researchers last saw L41 on August 11, 2019

Mega sired many calves during his forty-three years of life, making him one of the most important breeders in the SRKWs recent history. 

Read Astrid van Ginneken's a look BACK and Ken Balcomb's L41 recollections.

L41 - Photograph by Dave Ellifrit, 2013

Anchor 1


We are hopeful that L41 is alive somewhere and returns to the subgroup, but he did live to a ripe old age and fathered more baby whales than any other whale in the community.
He had a good life.
- Ken Balcomb

An excerpt from a January 30 press release by Ken Balcomb announcing that 43-year-old L41, Mega, was missing.

Read the rest of Ken's announcement.



2020 Encounter summary

CWR Member photo DOWNLOAD 

For personal use only.

J47 Spyhop

Encounter #9 // February 25, 2020

(Photograph by CWR's Mark Malleson

Excerpt from Encounter Summary:

Within a few hundred metres was J26, followed closely by J47, who looked like was picking up scraps from a snack, though no obvious predation was observed. The pair were soon joined by J35 and J27 and this group of four socialized for several minutes before they split up and J47 continued following J26 in his slipstream.
Read the full Encounter #9 with J pod. 

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

Salish Sea Transboundary Ecosystem 

Click map to enlarge.

Source: Environment and Climate Change Canada

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

Encounters in 2020:
13 Encounters through February 29, 2020 
  • Southern Resident killer whale encounters: 7

  • Transient/Bigg's killer whale encounters: 6


Encounters with killer whales in inland waters since January 1Encounter #1 - #13, are marked on the map: Encounters with Southern Residents are marked with blue numbered locator dots and Transients/Bigg's with black numbered locator dots. These locator dots are active links to the full Encounter Summary (desktop version only).

Note. There are two #3 on the map: Encounter #3 (Seq #1) and Encounter #3 (Seq #2)

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

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


CWR has documented thirteen killer whale encounters through February 2020. During the first two months of 2019, orcas were seen in inland waters on twelve occasions (five Southern Resident sightings, seven Transient/Bigg's sightings).


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

SRKW Census_July 1-2019_RP.jpg

Southern Resident Orca Population 

J, K, and L Pod Census as of July 1 (1976-2019). Click graph to enlarge.

© 2019 Copyright Center for Whale Research. Derivative use requires written approval.


L41 (largest dorsal fin) was last seen by CWR field researchers on August 11, 2019 (Encounter #51). Photograph by Mark Malleson.

Southern Resident killer whale missing!
L41 is presumed to be deceased

L41 recollections by CWR's Founder and Senior Scientist, Ken Balcomb:

My first acquaintance with the Southern Resident killer whale (SRKW) we designated L41 was in 1977, the year after we began the annual Orca Survey of this population that continues to this day. His mother was L11, who was one of nine females to produce new babies that year following the cessation of captures in 1976. We watched the energetic young male baby as he grew up, and we had great hopes that he and his companions would fill in the youthful cohorts of the population that had been decimated by captures between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s.


L41, with an adoption name Mega, travelled with his mom and sisters in a subgroup of L pod that became known as the L12s, named after his presumed grandmother, who was the likely mother of L11. It should be noted that the alpha-numeric designations are not in the birth order sequence in the early years of the Orca Survey – because nobody knew the population composition prior to our study. The whales were numbered in those early years in the order that they were first seen, and it was only after we had all of them identified in 1976 that subsequent new babies received the next sequential alpha-numeric designation for identification. 

Read all of L41 recollections​.


In 2019, CWR field staff encountered SRKWs 42 times (Js - 30 times, Ks - 18 times, Ls - 20 times). ​The most prolific month of Southern Resident killer whale encounters by CWR was September with 10 sightings (Js - 4 times, Ks - 9 times, Ls 7 times). For the first time since the Orca Survey began in 1976, there were no Southern Residents sightings in the “core summer habitat” during June, and for the second year in a row, there were no sightings by CWR staff of SRKWs in May. Three SRKWs died in 2019: J17, K25, and L84. ​During the three years before 2019, CWR staff observed and documented SRKWs as follows:  2018 - 49, 2017 - 42, 2016 - 63. CWR field researchers encountered Southern Resident orcas in their core April-September habitat in the Salish Sea on 36 of the 183 days; historically, some SRKWs would be present nearly every day during these six months.

getting to KNOW THEM

In each issue of the WHALE Report, we feature one or more members of the SRKW community. In this issue, our focus is the offspring of the most prolific male in the recent history of the Southern Resident population, L41.

getting to KNOW THEM

L41's offspring

K33 at sunsent on March 3,  2018 (Encounter #10).

Photograph by Mark Malleson.

A study published in March 2018, Inbreeding in an endangered killer whale population, found:"The 46 high confidence paternities involved males mating with females from all three pods (Supporting Information: Table S 6). Two males, L41 and J1, were responsible for 80% of the paternities where a sampled father was identified, and 52% of all sampled offspring born since 1990."

In 2011, scientists and collaborators from Northwest Marine Fisheries Service, Center for Whale Research, University of Washington, and Cascadia Research Collective reported the paternity of more than fifteen Southern Resident killer whale calves. The study, Inferred paternity and male reproductive success in a killer whale (Orcinus orca) population, found that only L41 and J1 could be positively identified as having fathered offspring in the SRKW community. Other mature Southern Resident orca males were "inferred by indirect methods to be probable fathers of living SRKW." There was conclusive evidence that some individuals were born as a result of matings by animals from the same pod. Note. J1 died in 2010.

Genetic testing provided some interesting paternity results.

The oldest living males fathered by L41 are K33 and K34

K33 // Male - K12 matriline 

  • Born 2001; 19-years-old

  • Mother K22 (est. 1972) 

  • No siblings; uncle K37 and aunt K43

  • Identify K33 by his left and right side saddle patches (closed), and curve near the tip of his dorsal fin.  

K12 Matriline.png

K34 // Male - K13 matriline 

  • Born 2001; 19-years-old

  • Mother K13 (deceased,

        est. 1972-2017) 

  • Three siblings; K20, K25,

         and K27; two nephews,

         K38 and K44

  • Identify K34 by his open

         left and right side saddle


SRKW Known and Probable Paternity: L41 
J Pod
  • J34 (male/died 2016)
  • J35 (female/born 1998)

  • J36 (female/born 1999)

  • J37 (female/born 2001)

  • J40 (female/born 2004)

  • J44 (male/born 2009)

  • J45 (male/born 2009)

  • Neonate (died 2013)

  • J53 (female/born 2015)

K Pod
  • K33 (male/born 2001)

  • K34 (male/born 2001)

  • K35 (male/born 2002)

  • K36 (female/born 2003)

  • K42 (male/born 2008)

L Pod
  • L95 (male/died 2016)

  • L100 (male/died 2014)

  • L101(male/died 2008)

  • L106 (male/born 2005)

  • L112 (female/died 2012)

  • L116 (male/born 2010)

11_K34 & K27_20160823KCB_SJ1-0015.jpg

K34 and K27 breaching simultaneously on August 23, 2016 (Encounter #88). Photograph by Ken Balcomb.

Photo Gallery - L41's offspring
L41's offspring: L112

L41's offspring: L112

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit

L41's offspring: K35

L41's offspring: K35

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit

L41's offspring: L106

L41's offspring: L106

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit

L41's offspring: K34

L41's offspring: K34

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit

L41's offspring: J53

L41's offspring: J53

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit

L41's offspring: J45 breach

L41's offspring: J45 breach

Photograph by Melisa Pinnow

L41's offspring: J40

L41's offspring: J40

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit

L41's offspring: J37

L41's offspring: J37

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit

L41's offspring: J36

L41's offspring: J36

Photograph by Mia Reynolds

L41's offspring: J35

L41's offspring: J35

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit

L41's offspring: L116

L41's offspring: L116

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit

L41 offspring: L95 and J34

L41 offspring: L95 and J34

Photograph by Dave Ellifrit

L41's offspring: J44

L41's offspring: J44

L41's offspring: K36 and K42

L41's offspring: K36 and K42

L41's offspring: K33

L41's offspring: K33

Photograph by Melisa Pinnow

a look BACK

a look BACK

Fatherhood nearly cut off before it got started
Only a few yards separated the two whales from the stern. 
By Dr. Astrid van Ginneken, CWR Co-Principal Investigator

Every whale that passes away is a significant loss, and it is very sad to see how many have disappeared over the past years. But the longer an individual has been with us, and especially when it is an easily recognizable iconic orca, it is even harder. 

     When I began to help with the Orca Survey in 1987, the population was going up. A death was exceptional in those days. I remember L41 as the young sprouter whom I could tell from L7, because of his slightly taller fin with a nick in the middle. As a 10-year old, he was big for his age. He steadily gained size and weight and grew into an independent and self-confident adolescent.

     Perhaps his mother, L11, was less protective. I remember J10 as a female who always kept her young at her side, whereas L11 seemed to have a more relaxed attitude towards her offspring. It looked like she told them: “Feel free to explore the world. If you need me, I’ll be there.” She appeared to encourage him to socialize and build relationships with other individuals early on. Which we now know seems vital for survival when a mom passes away.

L41 survived the loss of his mother, probably because he was so well accepted by others in his pod.

     One extraordinary event happened on September 14, 1996. Around 7 am, Robin Baird (Cascadia Research Collective) called in a sighting of whales heading north at Hannah Heights. We quickly readied the Center for Whale Research/Earthwatch team and departed Snug Harbor in our trimaran, High Spirits. We saw the orcas abreast at Bellevue Point, heading toward us. There were vocalizations on the hydrophone, and it was evident from the start that the whales were social and active.

     The group turned out to be Js and Ls!

     Several big males sought each other’s company. We saw J1, J6, L57, and later L38. We turned around and monitored the various J and L groups as they headed north.

     When we entered Mitchell Bay, the scene slowed a bit, and we saw a few whales milling at their leisure. We barely moved when we saw a whale hanging in the water close to the boat. In a sort of aerial scan, it held its head a little tilted, and for a moment, we thought it was looking at us. We were thrilled with the attention. 

     Then, within minutes we suddenly saw adult males converging on us. L57 and L10 approached from portside.

J6 came from the starboard side and L41 from behind. The males seemed eager for something and increased speed, creating suction along their flanks.

     The whale that had been “looking” at us rolled and dived. We looked around in all directions to see what the males were up to.

     A few tantalizing minutes of activity went on underwater, out of sight. Then small waves at the stern revealed the presence of approaching whales. We huddled in the back of the boat to watch. 

CWR staff observing SRKWs from High Spirits in the late 70s. 

     Then, I saw a male and a female whale approach belly up

. . . with the giant penis of the male reaching over to the genital slit of the female. Only a few yards separated the two whales from the stern. I made a dash for the throttle to put High Spirits in idle. While we looked down into the water, the pair glided underneath the boat. The penis clearing the prop by only an inch!

     Relieved that no harm was done, we watched the two orcas surface in front of us. The mystery was solved: It was

L41 and J19.

     We realized that all of the males had been interested in J19, who had been logging beside our vessel. She hadn’t been interested in us at all! Instead, she had been curiously looking around above and underwater as if saying: “Who will it be . . . ?”

     Not long after, we saw fog rolling in. Partly in the thin clouds, but just in time, we entered Snug Harbor safely. Still with our minds on the pair in love, the scene passed in revue. Obviously, L41 had won his prize over, as he would do many times to come. 


Author’s Note. No calf was conceived during this mating session between L41 and J19. But L41, along with J1, would go on to sire the majority of the calves in the Southern Resident killer whale community. Many are still with us, and hopefully, they will live to carry on the genes of their strong fathers to new generations!

Dr. Astrid van Ginneken has been a volunteer CWR staff member since 1987, has published scientific and popular articles about killer whales, and has written a novel, Togetherness is Our Home, An Orca’s Journey through Life, in which killer whales star. She is a data collection and database specialist, is an accomplished wildlife photographer, and is well known for her captivating storytelling of encounters with the charismatic Southern Resident orcas. Dr. van Ginneken lives in The Netherlands.

getting to KNOW US

getting to KNOW US

CWR's Mark Malleson

Mark was born and raised in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. He has been locating and documenting Transient/Bigg’s and Southern Resident killer whales traveling in the Salish Sea for the Center for Whale Research since 2003. Along with collecting photo ID shots of orcas, Mark has compiled and published an extensive identification catalog of Humpback whales frequenting the region. He also does contract work for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (since 2003) and guides and skippers Prince of Whales whale watching vessels. Transport Canada certified Mark as a commercial skipper in 1997. 

Meet the entire Center for Whale Research team


with Mark Malleson

Mark Malleson aboard Mike 1 near Victoria, British Columbia in 2018 (Encounter #7). From a video shot by Ken Balcomb.

T060C_MLM_ FEB 18 2019.jpg

Q: How did you become interested and involved in the whale world?

A: I was introduced to the Southern Resident killer whales in 1994 when a friend of mine, who was working for the Oak Bay Beach Hotel, took me out early one morning on the "tracker" boat to locate whales. Some hotel guests would go whale watching later that morning. My friend and I left Oak Bay in dense fog at 7:00 am, broke out of it halfway across Haro Strait headed for the west side of San Juan Island. We worked our way from Limekiln State Park south as far as Eagle Point. No luck finding whales. We then headed offshore toward Discovery Island. Midway across Haro Strait on a line with Limekiln, we came across a large concentration of orcas. My friend announced it was all of  L pod, which back then was more than 40 animals. In 1997, this friend was working for Prince of Whales as a guide/zodiac skipper and was leaving to join the Coast Guard. He suggested I apply for his old job. Twenty-three years, later I am still working for Prince of Whales.


Q: How did you get involved working with the Center for Whale Research? 

A: Ken Balcomb and I crossed paths when I was heading down Saanich Inlet in my 11.5' zodiac trying catch up with a group of Offshore killer whales that had gone down the inlet earlier in the day. Ken and Dave Ellifrit were headed home after an encounter with these orcas and let me know the whales were foraging at the head of the inlet.

In 2003, I received a call at home saying that Ken was at the Prince of Whales office in Victoria looking for me. He already knew that I shared the same passions as him: whales and photography. I invited him to come back to my apartment to talk whales over a beer. I showed him my extensive collection of organized slides and photographs of killer whales. On the spot, he offered to buy me a digital camera - I was still shooting film - and a laptop computer to help with his research of the SRKWs.

Q: You take amazing photographs. How did your interest in marine mammal photography come about? 

A: I have been an avid photographer since I was a teenager and packed a camera along with me from my very first trip guiding with Prince of Whales. I was enamored with the beauty of the orcas and would take pictures at every opportunity while guiding and eventually on my own time outside work hours. I also took opportunistic shots of other marine mammals, including my first ever Humpback whale shot in 1997.

One of Mark's favorite Transient/Bigg's killer whale photograph: T060C porpoising in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  

Q: Do you have a favorite non-ID picture you've taken of either Southern Residents or Bigg’s/Transients?

A: My favorite picture is a shot I took of L89 at sunset near Eagle Point, San Juan Island (see photograph below).

Q: What kind of camera and lenses do you use to photograph whales and other marine life? 

A: I've been shooting Canon since I got started in the whale watching world. I now use a Canon 5D Mark IV with a 300mm 2.8 lens. I also have a second camera (5D Mark III) with a 70-200mm 2.8.