Staff photo/Hayley Day Southern resident killer whales from the J and L pods were on the county courthouse lawn.

Southern resident killer whale fins displayed for Endangered Species Day

On Friday, May 19, 86 Southern resident killer whales were spotted in Friday Harbor — not in the Salish Sea, but on Second Street.

Members of the Center for Whale Research and the San Juan Islanders for Safe Shipping planted 86 foam orca fins on the county courthouse and council chamber’s lawns to honor Endangered Species Day. The seven white orcas represented the ghosts of those who died in 2016 and early 2017 and a chain draped around Tokitae’s fin represented her captivity at a Miami oceanarium. Of the over 1,000 animal types on the Endangered Species list, the Salish Sea’s resident orcas have made it to the top eight. According to Deborah Giles, research director at the Center for Whale Research, that was a way for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration employees to request congressional funds to protect what they consider to be the most endangered species. So far, no money has been allocated.

“We know what needs to be done, it just takes political willpower,” said Giles, about increasing orcas’ food supply. “Are [politicians] going to let these animals go extinct on their watch?”

Two others on the top eight of NOAA’s “spotlight” species are eaten by the Southern residents — Coho salmon from the central Californian coast and Chinook salmon from the Sacramento River. According to data from the Center for Whale Research, in years when Chinook salmon are low, the orca population dwindles.

It’s large vessels, like oil containers, that cause the biggest noise disturbance to orcas, said Giles, which hinders their ability to communicate and echolocate food.

The possibility of oil spills is also a threat, she added.

“If we had an oil spill, the quarter of the size of the Exxon Valdez, our ecosystem would be crushed,” said Giles.

Projects proposed by the U.S. government and a Canadian company are impacting Southern residents as well, said Lovel Pratt of San Juan Islanders for Safe Shipping. The U.S. Coast Gaurd is proposing areas for large ships to anchor off the San Juans without an environmental review. Officials are also not reviewing how increased vessels will affect Southern residents’ critical habitat, which includes the San Juans, in the expansion of a Vancouver shipping terminal. To learn more about these issues and how to help, visit

Giles will kick off Orca Awareness Month on June 4 at the Golden Gardens Park in Seattle with the Center for Whale Research staff, tribal and political speakers, and the 86 orca fins, held by demonstrators. So far, said Giles, only J pod has been accounted for this year, and K and L haven’t been spotted. This is historically late, she added.

“If we don’t have direct action now, we’ll lose the Southern residents,” said Giles. “We are already losing them.”

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Staff photo/Hayley Day When all of the pods are together, it’s called a superpod, said Deborah Giles, research director at the Center for Whale Research. A superpod hasn’t occurred in three years, she added.

Staff photo/Hayley Day White orca fins represented ghosts of those who died in 2016 and early 2017.

Staff photo/Hayley Day Granny, once the oldest known orca, died last January.

Staff photo/Hayley Day Southern resident killer whales from the K pod were in front of the county council chambers.

Contributed image/Center for Whale Research This graph shows that in years when there are less salmon, more Southern resident killer whales die.