In the Pacific Northwest, the Salish Sea is an important bioregion for a variety of marine mammals including two ecotypes of killer whales or orcas: Transients and Residents.

Orcas are prey specialists:

  • Transient orcas (aka, Bigg's) predate on marine mammals.
  • Residents feed on fish, preferably salmon with their favorite being Chinook. The Northern Resident Community is more likely found north of Vancouver Island. The Southern Resident Community, listed as an endangered population in the US and Canada, uses the Salish Sea extensively, as well as the outer coast from SW Alaska to Monterey, California.  

There are three pods (J, K and L) in the Southern Resident Community of Orcas. The Whale Museum's Sightings data verifies that they can be seen in the Salish Sea throughout the year. Traditionally, the summer core habitat has been around the San Juan Islands/southern Vancouver Island when large salmon runs are returning and there is sufficient food for all three pods, allowing for increased socializing. In the past few years, we have started seeing significant shifts in their behavior (Sightings Chart).

Researchers have been studying these wild whales in their natural habitat since 1976. Each orca can be identified by the shape and size of the fin on its back (dorsal fin) and the gray and white markings beneath and behind the fin (saddle patch). Each animal has been given a pod identification number and a common name which reflects a bit of its heritage, personality or circumstances of its discovery.

Meet the whales.

Currently, there are over 70 whales in these three pods that are available for adoption through The Whale Museum’s Orca Adoption Program. The funds raised through this program help directly support ongoing research on the orcas and other marine mammals in the area.

Research efforts and programs include shore-based acoustics and observational research at Lime Kiln Point State Park, compilation and maintenance of the Southern Resident orca critical habitat data base for the federal government, support of field research on vessel activities around the orcas and other wildlife through the Soundwatch Program, and operation of the federal marine mammal stranding network in the San Juan Islands, with its affiliated studies on marine mammal health and emerging diseases that could threaten the orcas. Local educational and summer tourist programs also benefit from these monies.

The whales of J, K and L pods could use your help to ensure their long-term well-being. Current problems facing these whales include declining fish populations, toxic exposure, surface impacts and underwater noise from pleasure and commercial boaters, and the possibility of a major oil spill in this region. All these need further study and solutions.

Educators play a vital role by educating their students about the Southern Resident orcas, their marine habitat and fellow species. Through education, students can be encouraged to become active, stewards of our shared environment. Some of the resources available to Educators include:

  • Specialized Tours and Programs of The Whale Museum or on-line curricula.
  • A Classroom Orca Adoption is a great way to connect your students with an orca in the Southern Resident Community.

Marine Mammals of the Salish Sea

Download a chapter from the San Juan Nature Institute Teachers' Guide marine mammals of the Salish Sea.

 kids' corner  

Be an Orca Super Hero!

Kids' Guide To Ocean And Marine Wildlife Conservation

A Student's Guide to Marine Biology

Gray Whale Migration Maze

Humpback Whale Coloring Picture

Gray Whale Coloring Picture

Minke Whale Coloring Picture

Beach Clean Up Coloring Picture

Orca Coloring Picture

Porpoise Coloring Picture

Food Chain Coloring Picture

NOAA's Protect Our Ocean Activity Book: Be An Ocean Guardian can be downloaded here: 

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