There are two different kinds of orcas that can be seen in Puget Sound: the Southern Resident Orcas, who are a distinct population of orcas that exclusively feed on fish in the waters of the Salish Sea and Puget Sound region, and Transient Orcas, also known as Bigg's Orcas, who feed on other marine mammals such as seals and smaller porpoises. While these so-called "killer whales" are a common part of whale watching tours in the Seattle area, they're actually not whales at all but a very large species of porpoise! These majestic marine mammals have captivated the hearts of locals and visitors alike.
The Southern Resident Orcas live in tight-knit family groups called pods, which consist of several generations of related individuals. There are three pods in the Puget sound, called J, K, and L pods. Each has its own unique vocalizations and communication patterns, creating distinct "dialects" among the different pods. They primarily feed on Chinook salmon, a keystone species in the region, and their dependence on this specific prey has made them vulnerable to fluctuations in salmon populations. In fact, 97% of the Southern Resident Orcas' diet consists of salmon species of various kinds, and their survival is dependent on the health of the salmon species that inhabit the region.
The Transient Orcas are larger in size and have a diet of seals, smaller porpoises and whales, and other marine mammals. While it's hard to tell the difference between the two kinds of Orcas based on their size from a distance, you can also tell them apart by the shape of their saddle patch, the light grey or white patch located behind the dorsal fin. On Southern Resident Orcas, this saddle patch is a sort of open "U" shape, while Transient Orcas have a solid patch.
The people of the Lummi Nation, a coastal Salish tribe, consider the Southern Resident Orcas to be kin, and have a long, rich history of story and ritual connecting them to their family beneath the waves. While the Resident orcas of Puget Sound are a beloved symbol of the region's natural beauty, they face numerous threats to their survival. These include declining salmon populations, pollution, and underwater noise from boat traffic. As a result, the Southern Resident Orcas are listed as an endangered species, highlighting the need for conservation efforts and protective measures to ensure their long-term survival. Before laws were passed to protect these beautiful creatures, calves were sometimes stolen away from their pods by those seeking to use them for entertainment purposes. One such whale, known as Tokitae or "Lolita" as her captives called her, is being returned to her native waters after more than fifty years of captivity thanks to the efforts of local tribespeople as well as conservationists.
Encountering the orcas of Puget Sound in their natural habitat is a truly awe-inspiring experience. Their grace, intelligence, and complex social structures make them an iconic symbol of the region's unique marine ecosystem and serve as a reminder of the need to preserve and cherish the natural wonders of our waters for future generations. June is Orca Awareness Month, and it's more importanbt than ever to take the steps needed to protect these wonderful creatures.