Deborah Giles looking at Eba, a scent detection dog, standing on a rock.
Photo by Wild Orca.

Giles—one name—like Beyonce or Bowie, is what she prefers to be called, both by friends and colleagues alike. It’s a tip of the hat to her dad, but to be identified as “Dr. Deborah Giles,” or as a, “leading killer whale biologist” or “Southern Resident killer whale expert” is just too formal for those she considers family—and if you care about saving these whales, she treats you like family.  Make no mistake, she has more than earned her degrees, titles, and publications, but they have all served a singular purpose: dedicating her life to protecting this unique population of whales.

Rewind to her 18th birthday. It was on a road trip to the San Juan Islands from her hometown of Sacramento that she first met these endangered killer whales face to face. This encounter changed her life, and altered her path, and she knew that one day she would steer her vessel toward safeguarding their future.

Deborah Giles sitting on rocks watching a killer whale breach in 1987.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Deborah Giles.

Giles, during her first visit to San Juan Island in 1987.

Today she steers a literal vessel, Wild Orca’s research boat Cheena—named in memory of a cherished canine companion. Also on board are husband Jim, and of course Eba the Whale Dog, a local celebrity. It’s here, from an island in the heart of the Salish Sea that Giles carries out her critical research—monitoring the Southern Resident killer whales’ health.

After completing her undergraduate degree, she became a research assistant and began graduate study, specializing in conservation biology and whale behavior, focused primarily on the Southern Resident killer whales. Completing her degree in just 3 years, she pushed on with a Ph.D., all while working as a research scientist with NOAA, and the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington. Today, she is one of only a handful of scientists to have focused almost exclusively on this endangered population, making her a leading expert on these whales. She’s an invaluable resource, acting in advisory positions for conservation groups in her island community, as well as state and local government.

Dr. Deborah Giles at the helm Wild Orca’s Research Vessel, R/V Cheena.

Deborah Giles at the helm of a research vessel.
Photo by Wild Orca.

Giles’ lifework is multifaceted: a lot of her time is spent on the water, observing the whales’ behavior, and improving non-invasive health monitoring techniques. Off the water, she’s a tireless vocal advocate, testifying at hearings, and public meetings, or acting as an expert witness in a lawsuit: whatever can affect change for these whales, whom she views as “better versions of ourselves.”

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She isn’t one to play favorites, but does feel especially drawn to K20 Spock—also a girl with a boy’s name! When Giles isn’t busy acting as a voice for Spock’s pod and her clan, she has the most fun hiking and camping the old-fashioned way—in a tent, with Jim and Eba, who’s unbridled joy for camping is on par with Giles’ love of chips n salsa, but not her reverence for whales.