Frequently Asked Questions About the Orcas (also known as Killer Whales)
A pod is an extended family containing maternal groups composed of mothers and their offspring. Some of these family units have as many as four generations traveling together. The Southern Resident Community of endangered orcas have three pods: J, K, and L.
J Pod is presently composed of 25 individuals. The oldest matriarch orca, Granny (J-2), is in J Pod. They are seen most frequently along the western shore of San Juan Island and are the only pod seen at leat once a month throughout the winter months.
K Pod is presently composed of 20 individuals. During the summer, K Pod can be seen almost daily, feeding on salmon along the west side of San Juan Island.
L Pod is presently composed of 40 individuals. L Pod is the largest of the three pods in the Southern Resident Community. Because of its size, L Pod frequently breaks off into separate subgroups. They can often be seen traveling as a full pod during the height of the summer salmon runs.
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What are the letters and numbers about?
- Individuals are represented with their alphanumeric designation, a common name, and a birthdate or estimated birthdate (est).
- The letter 'J' in 'J-8' represents the pod designation. There are three pods--J, K, and L--in the Southern Resident Community of killer whales.
- The number '8' in 'J-8' represents the eighth animal individually identified when the studies of these whales began in 1976. In most cases, the higher the number the younger the whale.
How do they communicate?
The whales communicate with a vast repertoire of vocalizations including squeaks, chirps, and whistles. Each pod has its own dialect which is passed down from generation to generation. J, K, and L pods have no problems communicating with each other because, although they have vocalizations unique to their pod, they also share many of the same calls.
Why are they called 'Killer Whales'?
Orcas are highly efficient ocean predators--top of the food chain. Some cooperate when hunting, just like wolves. The fact that most killer whales feed on other marine mammals, including the large baleen whales, have earned them their common name. Pacific Northwest resident pods of killer whales, however, rely primarily upon the once-abundant salmon runs for food.
How long can they live?
There are female killer whales in the Southern Resident Community that are thought to be in their 90s and one male in his 50s, but the average lifespan for a female is around 55 years of age and 30 years of age for a male.
Where do they go during the winter months?
Though it is not known exactly where the whales go, more has been learned over the last decade. For many years it was presumed that K and L pods headed out to the Pacific Ocean and spent the winter out there. Since 2003, L pod has been spotted during February or March near Monterey Bay, California. Many times they would be spotted again a few weeks later off the outer coast of Washington. J Pod is seen more frequently than K or L pods during the winter months. They come in to the Salish Sea, including Puget Sound and the waters around the San Juan Islands and the Canadian Gulf Islands, in search of salmon. J Pod often passes through the inland waters of the Salish Sea and returns to the Pacific Ocean, repeating this once or more each month often during the winter.
Are orcas endangered?
In May 2001, an Endangered Species petition was submitted to the U. S. National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) to get the Southern Resident Community listed in the United States. In the summer of 2002, NMFS rejected this proposal, instead listing them as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In early 2005, NMFS proposed a threatened designation. In November, 2005, NMFS listed the Southern Resident Community as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. This went into effect in February, 2006.
In 2001 Canada listed the Southern Resident Community as "endangered." Pollution, dwindling salmon stocks, and high vessel traffic around the whales were cited as reasons for the listing. The fact that the population of J, K and L pods has not exhibited sustained growth in the last 35 years also concerns researchers.
Worldwide, there is no available count of how many wild orcas exist. They are found in every ocean of the world, with the greatest concentrations in the colder waters of the Antarctic, Pacific Northwest, and around Iceland and Norway.
Environmental education may be the strongest ally the orcas have. It is only through an understanding of the whales' needs for habitat and food resources that we can develop the conservation policies which will ensure their survival. The Whale Museum hosts exhibits and sponsors educational and stewardship programs on behalf of the orcas.
updated: June 2012