Southern resident orcas are a unique population of orcas in the Pacific Northwest that are genetically and behaviorally distinct from other killer whales.

Due to declines of their primary prey, chinook salmon, the southern resident population has been decreasing for years. Large dams, like those on the Snake River, and the destruction of salmon habitat have caused salmon stocks throughout the Northwest to either plummet or vanish, leaving orcas with less and less to eat.

Today, these orcas are slowly starving to death. On a collision course with extinction, southern residents are also dealing with noise from ship traffic and toxic pollution. Underwater noise from boats disrupt the orcas’ echolocation and pollution from old vessels and stormwater runoff contaminate the salmon that the orcas eat. As the whales eat these polluted salmon, they accumulate toxic chemicals in their bodies, which can make them sick.

Defenders' Impact

Defenders advocates to remove the four lower Snake River dams, which would restore a critical salmon run. We also work to secure funding for critical state and federal programs like the Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Geographic Area Program that protect and restore salmon habitat and water quality.

Defenders launched a new coexistence program in 2017 called Orcas Love Raingardens. The goal of this program is to promote raingardens at public schools and parks to reduce the amount of polluted stormwater reaching our local waterways, salmon, and orcas. These raingardens are a wonderful opportunity to familiarize residents and students in communities without regular access to the outdoors with orcas, salmon and the connections between humans and ecosystems.

We advance science-based solutions as a member of several state-level initiatives, such as Governor Inslee’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force and the Puget Sound Partnership’s Stormwater Strategic Initiative Advisory Team.

Threats

The three main threats to southern resident orcas are lack of prey (chinook salmon), toxic pollution and disturbance from vessels.

Protection Status
Endangered Species Act
IUCN Red List
 Endangered
 Not Listed

The southern resident distinct population segment (DPS) is listed as endangered.

Southern resident orcas are data deficient under the IUCN red list.

What You Can Do

Limit chemical use and plant a raingarden to reduce stormwater runoff. Go solar to reduce the Pacific Northwest’s reliance on hydropower. Volunteer to restore salmon habitat.  

Facts
Latin Name
Orcinus orca
Size
21-23 feet long, 7 to 10 tons
Lifespan
30 – 50 years. The oldest orca ever known was Granny (J2), who was estimated to be over 100 years old when she died.
Range/Habitat

The mouths of West Coast rivers like the Columbia and Oregon are especially important habitat for southern resident orcas due to the concentration of salmon. Southern resident orcas are a unique group of orcas that spend over half the year in the Salish Sea, which includes Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia. For the other half, they are found foraging for salmon along the west coast as far south as Monterey Bay.

Population

There are 75 southern resident orcas left in three pods: J, K and L.

Behavior

Pods usually consist of 5 - 30 whales, although some pods may combine to form a group of 100 or more. Orcas establish social hierarchies, and pods are led by non-reproductive older females, who often teach hunting skills and help feed younger relatives. Orcas have a complex form of communication with different dialects from one pod to another.

Reproduction

Gestation is 13 to 16 months. A calf is born in autumn weighing almost 400 pounds and measuring up to seven feet in length. Calves will remain with their mothers for at least two years.

Diet

Southern resident orcas’ diets consist of 90% salmon, the majority of which are chinook salmon.

adopt an orca

Your adoption helps support our work to ensure that these icons of the Salish Sea are protected by addressing the three major threats to their survival: prey availability, toxic pollution, and noise disturbance.

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News

Washington, DC

Congress Fights Back Against Trump-Bernhardt Extinction Plan

Today, Reps. Grijalva (D-AZ), Dingell (D-MI) and Beyer (D-VA), and Sen. Udall (D-NM), introduced bills to reverse the Trump administration’s attack on the Endangered Species