A group of Southern Resident killer whales swimming together.
Photo courtesy of Jeff Hogan.

Listening to the Southern Resident killer whales on the Salish Sea hydrophones, you can’t help but wonder, “just what are they talking about?” The intensity and volume on November 2nd was exhilarating. Welcoming a new arrival? We sure hope so! Three females are known to be pregnant in J pod.

The Southern Residents’ calls are not shared by any other orca society, even the Northern Residents who eat from the same menu, in the same waters. Despite the size of their brains, and complex social behaviors, some still find it hard to accept that whales even have language! A group working with artificial intelligence to crack the code of sperm whale communications is hoping to dispel this.

In the interim, ears underwater are an important tool to track where orcas go, and when. Even though we cannot understand the meaning of their calls, we can infer motivations, such as when their arrival coincides with salmon returning to spawn.

At the end of October, 60 of 73 community members gathered off Vancouver Island. Their previous get-together, in almost the same location, preceded the death of K21 Cappuccino. It is considered anthropomorphic to suggest the two are linked. It’s hard to imagine a bigger coincidence! A similar gathering in 2020 “coincidentally” followed the birth of J57 Phoenix to J35 Tahlequah, whose grief was witnessed by the world after the death of her calf in 2018.

Who sends out the invites to these special occasions? And how do they reach distant pods? We will likely never know, but this is why saving them from cultural extinction is essential. These multi-pod meetings have declined in recent years, and gatherings of the entire clan—known as a super pod— are now rare. We are witnessing real-time change in the dynamics of this close-knit community.

We must continue to protect their essential needs—to ensure plentiful prey, healthy habitats and a thriving wild ecosystem, so future generations can inherit their unique language, inspiring our grandchildren to ask, “what are they saying!”

This work is made possible in part by a grant from
Rose Foundation