A group of Southern Resident killer whales swimming close together.
Photo courtesy of Center for Whale Research. Taken under NMFS permit #15569.

In January, L Pod—led by L25 Ocean Sun—made an unusual visit to the inland waters of the Salish Sea, when in past years they have been seen as far south as Monterey Bay, California. L25 is believed to be over 90 years old, and is the oldest living Southern Resident killer whale by a country mile; L22 Spirit is the next oldest at 52.

When research began in the 1970s, there were a number of females thought to be in their 80s, who according to one researcher, “appeared to be immortal.” In fact, you will often find it stated that orca females live into their 80s, and males into their 50s. That was then. Today, the Southern Resident females are struggling to reach 50, and males are dying nearer to 30. This is not what a healthy population looks like.

The tragedy of the premature death of post-menopausal females cannot be over-stated. Adult sons—who remain dependent on mom for food—are more likely to die after her death, and it is these older, larger males who are more likely to be selected by females to father their offspring. In addition, the calves of her daughters are less likely to survive, than those with a living grandmother.

Two worrying pieces of news emerged from separate research groups as a result of this recent L pod visit. Photographs taken from a drone to assess body condition found that they appeared skinnier than the last time they were seen in November. This does not bode well for potential mothers, or those who are currently pregnant, as L90 Ballena appears to be. With 33 members, L pod is the largest of the three making up the Southern Resident community, yet has only had two successful births in the last 3 years, despite having 14 females of reproductive age. L72 Racer was documented as very pregnant in 2020, yet sadly no calf has been seen.

In addition, both Canadian and US researchers have failed to sight L89 Solstice on the last two occasions his family was observed. He is only 29 years old, but by today’s standards is now considered old, when in fact other killer whales in this community have fathered calves beyond this age, even up to 25 years older. There will need to be a further opportunity to find him with his family before he is declared officially missing. We can only hope…

5 Southern Resident killer whales.
Photo courtesy of Jeff Hogan.

Southern Resident Killer Whales L25 Ocean Sun, L41 Mega, L72 Racer, L77 Matia, L94 Calypso.

L25 has seen a world of change in her 90+ years, from declining salmon populations to increasingly polluted waters, and even the loss of her own calf at human hands, as she is the presumed mother of the last living Southern Resident in captivity, known to local tribes as Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut or Tokitae.

We owe it to this mother and daughter to turn around the fate of their tribe, to replenish the seas with abundant salmon, to share the catch, and share their future.

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