SFU Researchers among the first to sight new hope for endangered Killer Whales

September 01, 2022
Photographed by Lauren Laturnus

Concerns for the long-term survival of Southern Resident Killer Whale family, K-pod, have been high with no new births since 2011. That was until July of 2022 when a new member of the pod was spotted. K-pod is one of three Southern Resident Killer Whale matrilines of orcas who make up the local population of endangered orcas.

Two students in SFU’s School of Environmental Science, Olivia Murphy and Lauren Laturnus, were among the first to witness the calf, boosting hope for the longevity of K-pod.

Murphy and Laturnus have been working with the Saturna Island Marine Research and Education Society, the Southern Gulf Island Whale Sighting Network, and the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority ECHO Program to study whale behavior in relation to vessel activity to protect endangered whales. Recreational vessel and commercial ship traffic in the area pose big threats to the species, including disrupting their use of echolocation to find, track and capture fish, and increasing the possibility of ships striking whales.

While on a noble mission to gather data and further assess the impact of vessels on whale behavior in Boundary Pass, the MSc Ecological Restoration and Environmental Science students sighted the newest orca calf barely three days after it was first discovered in the Salish Sea.

“We were in the field that day capturing images and videos and IDing whales when we spotted the orca calf,” added Laturnus. “At first, it was hard to determine whether it was the same orca calf reported in the news earlier, but subsequent verifications revealed that it was.”

Lauren Laturnus (left) and Olivia Murphy (right)

The newest orca calf, also known as K45, was first discovered off San Juan Island by the Center for Whale Research and the Orca Behavior Institute. The orca calf is expected to be only a few months old. 

Ruth Joy, a statistical ecologist and lecturer in SFU’s School of Environmental Science who led a project to help protect endangered killer whales from ship strikes and oversees Murphy’s current research, is excited for the future of endangered killer whales following the discovery. “K-Pod is the smallest of the three southern resident killer whale pods, and this young calf is one hopeful sign for the family,” says Joy.

Murphy, Laturnus, and Joy continue to learn more about the future and survival of endangered killer whales by examining the impact of vessel activity on whale behavior using AI-integrated hydrophones and other equipment. 

Murphy and Laturnus are just two of the many SFU researchers making a difference in the community and discovering hope for the endangered whale population. Visit the School of Environmental Science Research and the Research Opportunities page to learn more about their ongoing research work and how you can get involved.