Five Minutes About Southern Resident Killer Whales

Tomorrow I’ll go on my first-ever whale-watching trip. It’s the final activity of the Marine Naturalist Training Program offered by the Whale Museum on San Juan Island.  All 30 of us in the six-day course won’t just be watching, though; we’ll each give a 5-minute talk on a topic we drew from a hat the day we arrived. My topic? Resident orcas. 

As you can imagine, there’s much more to say about resident orcas (Southern Resident Killer Whales or SKRWs) than I can cover in 5 minutes, but here’s what I’ll share with my classmates in the time I’ll have.

Entrance to “Deep Dive” exhibit at San Juan Islands Museum of Art

Whales live in family groups called pods, and the Southern residents (SRKWs) are divided into 3 pods – J, K, and L. As of June 2019, there are 76 SRKWs. In the words of Whale Museum director Jenny Atkinson, “All 76 are in trouble.”

If we want to help them, we need to get to know them, and that’s why I took this course.  Here are just a few facts I’ve learned.

The “residents” spend much of the winter along the Pacific Ocean coast, some traveling as far south as Monterrey, CA. They’re generally in the Salish Sea from May through September, following the Chinook salmon migration from British Columbia’s Fraser River.

Male killer whales can live 50-60 years, and females 90  years or more. They can range from 25-30 feet and weigh 5 to 8 tons.

The orca brain is fascinating.


The SRKWs communicate with each other through a series of clicks, calls, and whistles. The J, K, and L pods share around 30 calls, though within each pod, the whales have specific calls similar to an accent or dialect.

These sounds force air through the whale’s air sacs in the nasal passages, and they bounce off prey, such as the Chinook salmon, and return to the whale’s skull via the hollow lower jaw. The returning echoes vibrate the inner ear bones and send the message to that big brain. This echolocation tells the whale the species, where the fish is, how big it is, and how fast and the direction it’s swimming.

In the early 20th Century, the SRKW population decreased from 150-200 animals down to 70 due to shootings and captures. They’re now listed as endangered in both the U.S. and Canada and remain threatened by toxins, lack of prey (Chinook salmon), and vessel noise.

We all have a part to play in protecting these marine mammals, and the opportunities are vast. Here are a few. 070F662C-C631-4F3E-B9CF-823C3AC76CEFI hope you’ll join me in pledging to help protect the resident orcas’ world, as well as your own. After all, we’re hitched to everything else in the universe.


  1. Great post Iris, the list is helpful! I just shared with someone the other day about you doing this course. It’s inspiring👍🏻 Keep up the great work🙏🏻 D.

    Dr. Debra Babcock Harmony Network Chiropractic & Yoga

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. Thanks, Debra. I recommend the Marine Naturalist Program to anyone interested in and concerned about mari​ne life of ​th​​e Salish Sea. My head is bursting with new information about marine mammals and invertebrates, geology, shore bird​s, surveying, and orca protection. All of this makes me treasure my home even more and inspires me to keep using my art to help protect it. I think you’d enjoy the program; it’s offered again next spring.​

  2. How timely, that you drew the card to review the southern resident orcas!

    I have been on only one whale watching trip also, to please my parents. It was 15 years ago, and at the time I came away enthralled with the whale encounters and with the naturalist’s words about their behavior. Today, however, things have changed. The number of boats have increased, the number of whales have decreased.

    I applaud your choice to be part of the naturalist training program! Please tell us more about your studies.

    1. Timely indeed. As you know, “teaching” about a topic is a great way to learn.

      Thanks for sharing your experience of whale-watching. I’ve just returned from my trip, and I have a range of mixed feelings that I’m still processing. I’ll definitely be writing more about that and the rest of the program. Overall, it was a worthwhile investment of time, energy, and money. I know it will inform my witing; it’s already increased my gratitude for and sense of urgency about this place I call home. Thank you for your support.

  3. Thanks for this, Iris, pledging to not eat salmon would be the only difficult thing for me on this whole list. Salmon is served a LOT here at Foulkeways!! I appreciate the research you did for this report, and share your sadness at the degradation of this magnificent species! We humans have turned out to be the WORST of all Earth’s invasive species! Bless you and yours, big love to all of you. M. Sent from my iPad


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