The Naming of Resident Killer Whales

Chances are that if you love Killer Whales you know the name of at LEAST a couple of individuals. Whether it’s dear departed J2 “Granny”, rescued and rehabilitated A73 “Springer”, or famously grief-stricken mother J35 “Tahlequah” – the names of Resident Orcas can stick with us and often leave big fluke-prints on our hearts. But have you ever stopped to wonder where those names come from? What about those weird letter/number codes? 

J2 “Granny” by Gary Sutton

All Resident Killer Whales are scientifically known by an alphanumeric identifier based on the letter of the pod they belong to (J/K/L for Southern Residents and A/B/C/D/G/H/I/R/W for Northern Residents) and the number in the order in which they were first identified or born into that pod. J1 aka “Ruffles” was the first orca to be recorded in the photo identification catalogue created by the Center for Whale Research in the 1970s – likely thanks to his easily recognizable dorsal fin that was over 6 feet tall and “ruffled” along the trailing edge.

J1 “Ruffles” by Nicole Cann

When researchers were first creating catalogues of resident killer whales the numbers were a bit all over the place and didn’t often correspond with age (eg. J1 who was likely ~40 years younger than J2) but nowadays numbers follow a more logical order (eg. L125, identified in February of 2021, is the 125th identified individual born into L pod). 

As exciting as alphanumeric systems can be even I admit that these designations are nowhere near as much fun as the nicknames commonly adopted for members of both the Northern and Southern resident populations. That said, these nicknames also don’t have such well-defined rules… 

Generally speaking, we’ve all agreed that Americans will come up with the nicknames for Southern residents and Canadians will name the Northern residents. Each country’s researchers have different ways of going about this but both typically wait to name the calves until they’ve survived at least their first year of life. Up here in Canada the orcas are usually named after specific geographic locations off the coast of British Columbia and within the range of the individual. For example, C13 “Fifer” was named after Fifer Bay in Fitz Hugh Sound. The orcas are almost exclusively named by Canadian researchers working with the whales, usually led by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Down South, things are a little more…relaxed. 

There have been different research groups that have taken on the responsibility of naming Southern resident killer whales at different times but currently The Whale Museum is leading the charge with their adoption program. Names can come from anywhere! Sometimes there’s a cute family theme like J22 “Oreo” and her son J38 “Cookie”. Sometimes there’s a beautiful and important acknowledgement of the cultural significance of these animals to Indigenous peoples as with J37 “Hy’Shqa” and her son J49 “T’ilem I’nges” who both received their names at a traditional Samish Nation potlatch naming ceremony, as have other members of their direct family. And sometimes there’s a public poll such as that held in November 2020 for J57 and J58, now nicknamed “Phoenix” and “Crescent” respectively. 

Despite how well documented so much of the lives of resident orcas is these days, especially Southern residents, trying to find the story of your favourite orca’s name may be harder then you expect. Orca Network maintains a list of every named individual of the Southern resident population, living or dead, and between the Center for Whale Research, and the Whale Museum, there is a record of why each individual was named what it was but these naming stories aren’t all publicly available online. Similarly, the Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program used to maintain extensive records of the naming stories of Northern Resident Orcas but after their latest update, a huge percentage of these histories are no longer published on their website, nor are the namesakes still available for adoption. Maybe once we’ve finished covering the “Naming of” for all the cetacean species out there we’ll circle back around and try to collect the stories of all resident orcas into one place. Stranger things have happened… like a killer whale being named “Yoda” (K36)! 

K36 “Yoda” by Gary Sutton

Read our Southern Resident stories here and our Northern Resident stories here and don’t forget you can share your encounters of any whales, dolphin or porpoise species here.

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