Updated: Aug 7
What are the Southern Resident Orcas?
The Southern Resident Orcas are three families of killer whales (Orcinus orca) that spend several months each year near Washington State’s Puget Sound region. The three families are known as the J, K, and L pods, and each family speaks in a unique "dialect". The families spend most of their time separately but reunite at the beginning of summer in a "super pod".
Each of the Southern Resident families are matrilineal, meaning that their social groups are related by a common female matriarch. The social group would consist of that female and the descendants of all her offspring. On a larger scale, the matriarchs of each pod can all be traced back to a single female ancestor.
Currently, the total Southern Resident population sits at 74 individuals. This is down from the peak population of 98 individuals in the mid 1990s, and several dangers still threaten their survival.
What Threats do Southern Resident Orcas Face?
Foremost in the challenges that Southern Residents face is the availability of food. While transient orcas in the region, named for their long travels along the western North American coastline, feed on a variety of marine mammals, the Southern Resident families rely exclusively on Chinook Salmon for their diet. However, the Chinook population has been declining for many years as a result of overfishing and habitat loss.
A lack of food can negatively impact the health of Southern Residents, leading to lower reproduction rates, illness, and death. As such, a key part of conservation efforts is the preservation of the Chinook Salmon population.
In addition to dwindling food sources, the Southern Residents face interference from vessels in their hunting. Orcas rely on echolocation and other acoustic messages to find prey and communicate while hunting. However, the sonar emitted by boats often overlap the frequencies of the orcas’ echolocation, which can lead to less prey capture.
Because the Puget Sound and the larger Salish Sea are busy port areas with dense human populations, it’s extremely important to regulate vessels so that they cause as little harm to the whales as possible.
Southern Resident Orcas and the Lummi Nation
The Southern Resident Orcas have a historical and important relationship with the Indigenous Lummi people, who are the original inhabitants of lands along the Washington State coast. The Lummi Nation refers to the whales as qwe'lhol'mechen, which translates to “the people beneath the waves.”
The Lummi people’s teachings tie the Southern Residents to themselves as kin, and maintains ceremonies dedicated to the orcas. They also collaborate with agencies to act and promote awareness on the threats faced by the orcas, and have been working to bring home one of the many orcas captured decades ago for aquarium theme parks.