For Orca Action Month this year, Defenders of Wildlife is celebrating the "Lasting Legacies” of the Southern Resident orcas with partners and coastal communities. In June and throughout the year, we share their stories and ours.
Kathleen Callaghy, Northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, focuses on recovering the critically endangered Southern Residents and the salmon they need to survive.
These sophisticated marine mammals have foraged the coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest for time immemorial, passing down knowledge and memories through generations.
“It’s easy to fall in love with the Southern Residents,” she says. “So much about them is fascinating. They speak a unique language, they play, and their society is led by matriarchs who teach their young how and where to forage for fish the same way that their ancestors have done for millennia.”
But then she learned something even more interesting.
Research has shown that some parts of orcas’ brains – those that trigger language, emotion and memory – are even more physically developed than human brains.
“When I learned this about orcas, it blew my mind,” said Callaghy, who earned her master’s degree in Northern Ireland, studying the emotional legacies of violent conflict in human communities and how trauma is passed down to future generations.
“There are whales alive today who remember when their relatives were captured or killed by humans during the 1970s. What would that do to a person? How has it impacted them?”
The information was heartbreaking, but it also provided a sense of validation for this Defenders rep.
“Suddenly, it felt like my meandering career trek had come full circle. Stories, emotion, and memory are my ‘thing,’ and I could not have picked a better species for this if I’d tried.”
Callaghy works to ensure that the Southern Residents’ legacy continues.
Only 73 of these unique orcas remain, and deaths are outpacing births. Like many coastal communities, Southern Resident orcas rely on Pacific salmon for sustenance. With wild salmon populations declining across the Pacific Northwest, they face starvation and possible extinction in polluted and highly trafficked waters.
To address these threats, Callaghy advocates for state and federal policies to recover Pacific salmon and strengthen protections for the Southern Residents.
Recently she worked on a petition that successfully led to the consideration to list Southern Resident orcas under the Oregon Endangered Species Act and lobbied for the passage of Washington State Senate Bill 5371, which mandates all vessels to maintain a uniform distance of 1,000 yards from the Southern Residents. She also conducts grassroots advocacy around the removal of the four Lower Snake river dams in Washington, which have been devastating salmon populations for decades.
“Whatever happens with these efforts, I’m in this fight for life,” Callaghy said. She was already invested, but then she heard a recording of an orca calf repeating a call back to its mother, continuing a tradition of teaching. “That’s it,” she thought. “I’m hooked.”