A group of killer whales in the wild is a breathtaking sight, made even more incredible by our growing knowledge of the complex dynamics at play within and between orca “pods.”
Orcas are highly social creatures, spending most of their lives surrounded by their own family group and associating with other whales in their pod. Families are matrilineal, with the oldest female maintaining order and discipline among her children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. Pods that travel within the same geographical area and occasionally associate for breeding purposes are called clans.
The southern resident killer whale population, which frequents the coastal waters between Seattle, Wash. and Vancouver, B.C., is unique in that it contains only one clan made up of just three pods: the J, K and L pods. Altogether, this clan consists of just 81 surviving individuals and is considered endangered. Because of its delicate status, the pods are carefully tracked. The J Pod is particularly well known thanks to some of its more newsworthy members. Rhapsody, a whale whose mysterious death is explored in the July/August 2016 issue of Canadian Geographic, is one of them. Here are a few of the relatives she left behind.
J-14 (Samish) – Samish is Granny’s granddaughter and, as of 2012, a grandmother herself. Her living offspring are Hy’Shqa, Suttles (J-40) and Se-Yi’-Chn (J-45). All of Samish’s children, as well as her grandson T’ilem I’nges, were named in traditional potlatch ceremonies conducted by members of the Samish Indian Nation in Washington State. Samish is often seen swimming close to her children and Granny.
J-17 (Princess Angeline) – Another venerable J Pod mother, Princess Angeline is named for the daughter of Chief Seattle, the Duwamish elder from whom the city derives its name. Princess Angeline and her two daughters, Polaris (J-28) and Tahlequah (J-35), all had calves between 2009 and 2010, and Princess Angeline gave birth again in 2015, so this busy family group is often seen surrounded by rambunctious young whales.
J-22 (Oreo) – Oreo is the mother of two male calves, DoubleStuf (J-34) and Cookie (J-38). She also raised her niece, Rhapsody (J-32), from the age of three until Rhapsody died under tragic circumstances in late 2014. Oreo and her offspring are close with Princess Angeline and her family group.