Face to Face with an Orca: New Exhibit Tells the Story of Sooke to Shed Light on the Killer Whales’ Plight

In the Pacific Northwest, we know each Southern Resident killer whale by name. While the loss of an individual whale leaves a hole in their tight knit family groups, on such occasions we gain the opportunity to fill data gaps and learn about the challenges facing marine mammals in our waters. On Feb. 11, 2012, a small killer whale washed up dead in Long Beach, Wash. This 12-foot whale was identified as L112, a three-year-old Southern Resident from L pod. Her name was Sooke—the daughter of L86, known as Surprise, and sister to L106, named Pooka.

Our first opportunity to learn from Sooke came through a collaborative stranding response led by NOAA's Northwest Marine Mammal Stranding Network—a coalition of volunteers from universities, federal and state wildlife and fisheries agencies, veterinary clinics, enforcement agencies, and individuals that respond to stranded marine mammals in the Pacific Northwest. Dr. Deb Duffield of Portland State University responded to the initial report and coordinated with NOAA Fisheries and other stranding network biologists.

Partners quickly gathered to conduct an external exam and a full necropsy within one day. Stranding network volunteers donned gloves and masks, and were on hand taking photos, collecting samples, and pitching in where needed. This collaborative, transboundary effort drew on the experience and expertise of many partners, including Portland State University, Cascadia Research Collective, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Marine Mammal Investigations, The Whale Museum, University of California SeaDoc Society, VCA Veterinary Specialty Center of Seattle, NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, and the Animal Health Center in British Columbia.

Recovering the body of a stranded killer whale is rare. The endangered status of the Southern Residents heightens the urgency to learn as much as we can from Sooke's case. The ongoing stranding investigation is a quest to evaluate all of the available information and test results to gain a better understanding of her death. Read the latest progress report on the investigation.

Every birth and death within an endangered population matters. With Southern Resident killer whales, every individual whale has a name and a story. As of now, the Southern Resident population stands at 84 whales consisting of 3 pods: J pod with 26 whales, K pod with 19 whales, and L pod with 39 whales. The Center for Whale Research conducts an annual census and photographs the unique saddle patches of each whale, tracking births and deaths in the family trees of the Southern Residents. Killer whale calves, whether male or female, stay with their mother and her family for their entire life. Some pods have as many as four generations, so calves live not only with their mother, but also with their sisters and brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandmothers, and even great-grandmothers in some cases. There are many parallels between orca culture and humans.

The close connection between people and orcas provides an opportunity to share Sooke's story—a way to raise awareness about the Southern Residents and the ecosystem we share. To honor Sooke and her family, her story will be turned into an exhibit at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, Wash. Her skeleton will be carefully prepared and displayed to reach school groups and patrons from far and wide. The exhibit will highlight Sooke, her family, and the endangered population of Southern Residents in need of stewardship and action. The skeleton will be on a pulley system, uniquely designed to be lowered to eye level. Patrons will come face to face with the story of Sooke and her family, and learn about the many threats marine mammals face today.

Sooke Exhibit

Through education, we can inspire others to support conservation through simple steps they can take in their daily lives. Here are three easy ways to learn more about orca whales and get involved:

  1. Learn how you can help orcas Link to a non-government website
  2. Visit the Center for Whale Research to learn about the annual census and whale identification Link to a non-government website
  3. Sign up on the orca listserv to receive email updates and learn about current issues and opportunities.

Learn more about the NEW and UPCOMING exhibit that celebrates the life of Sooke and a population that needs our help. Link to a non-government website

Photograph: Southern Resident killer whale Sooke swims with her mother Surprise! (foreground), and brother Pooka (background), in this photo from 2010 by Candi Emmons, Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

Drawing: Sooke's skeleton will be displayed at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, Wash., in an exhibit highlighting Sooke and her family, and the endangered population of Southern Resident killer whales. Drawing by Zach Chan.