Our Research

We study the behavior of wild killer whales, but what exactly does that mean? This page will introduce you to some of our current research questions.

In recent years, the Southern Residents have been splitting into smaller pod and mixed pod sub-groups during the summer months. Historically, seeing J- and K-Pod in June would mean you’re seeing all members of each pod – maybe 40-50 whales. Today, it may mean you’re seeing just the J2 and K14 matrilines, or a group of 10 or 11 whales. We’re tracking these changing social associations, watching both who is “in” and “out” of inland waters each day, as well as who is actually traveling together during our research encounters. We’re also comparing the presence and absence of different groups with various metrics to investigate what some of the driving factors might be behind which groups are here.

During certain times of year the residents have become more scarce than in years past. Simultaneously, transient killer whale encounters have been on the rise. What are the reasons for this, and now that transients are here more often, how are they using and sharing the habitat of the Salish Sea? We aren’t just tracking Southern Resident killer whales, but the presence and absence of transients, as well, with the hopes of gaining some insight into these and other questions.

In addition to social associations, we’re also particularly interested in acoustic communication. The repertoire of discrete calls used by the Southern Residents has been well established. Each pod uses a specific subset of these calls, but what call types are being used in the novel social groupings we’re seeing on almost a daily basis? Additionally, we’re getting the unique opportunity to make and analyze recordings of different matrilines by themselves.

Finally, many avid whale watchers have anecdotally noted some broad behavioral changes in the Southern Residents over the last 10 years or so. For example, one common claim is that the whales are more spread out and less social than they used to be. By replicating some studies done more than 30 years ago, we plan to quantify some of these changes, looking for potential shifts in the behavioral budget between these two time periods.

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