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-2 (Granny) (Photo: Gary Sutton/Steveston Seabreeze Adventures)

J-2 (Granny) – As her name implies, Granny is the supreme matriarch of J Pod. Researchers believe she was born around 1911, making her the oldest known living orca in the world. Granny was captured 1967 with other members of her pod but even then was deemed too old to live in a marine mammal park. She later appeared in wild orca scenes in the film Free Willy. Granny has no living children, but her granddaughter Samish (J-14) and several great-grandchildren travel with her in J Pod. In 2012, she became a great-great-grandmother when her great-granddaughter Hy’Shqa (J-37) gave birth to her first calf, T’ilem I’nges (J-49).

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-16 (Slick)(Photo: Gary Sutton/Steveston Seabreeze Adventures)

J-16 (Slick) – Slick has the distinction of being the oldest member of J Pod to give birth. Scarlet (J-50), born in 2014 when Slick was 43, is her sixth calf and one of four surviving offspring. Scarlet’s body bears rake marks that suggest hers was a difficult birth, possibly assisted by other members of Slick’s family. Slick’s family group is often seen travelling alone, separate from the rest of J Pod.

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.


J-51 (Nova) (Photo: Gary Sutton/Steveston Seabreeze Adventures)

J-51 to -54 (Nova, Sonic, TBD, TBD): 2015 was a good year for J Pod, with four new calves welcomed into the fold. Nova (J-51) was born in February to Eclipse (J-41) and was followed a month later by Sonic (J-52), the first offspring of Alki (J-36). In October, Princess Angeline gave birth to a female calf (J-53), and in December, Polaris gave birth to a male calf (J-54), both of whom have yet to receive common names.