Polaris, Dipper and the Death of the Southern Resident Killer Whales: Part 1

Polaris, Dipper and the Death of the Southern Resident Killer Whales: Part 1

Guest Blogger: Courtney Halvorson

In her biography on the Center for Whale Research website, a young 23-year-old female Southern Resident killer whale named Polaris (J-28) is described as “a spunky whale usually found in the crowd.” This statement in the past has held true, however those of us who have been closely observing Polaris over the last several months will describe a completely different whale altogether.

Throughout the summer months, whale watchers and researchers kept a close eye on Polaris hoping that she would make a miraculous recovery. We knew she was starving. We won't know what happened to her with 100% certainty without a carcass to do a necropsy, however it was very likely a combination of septicemia and starvation. Her health began declining in January after giving birth to her son Dipper (J-54), and her condition continued to deteriorate over the following months.

We observed a "peanut-head" which is a telltale sign of malnourishment. This condition is physically noticeable when the fatty melon used in echolocation on the front of the skull is visible beneath the skin as a lump. She was emaciated. Her family members including her daughter Star (J-46) attempted to feed her, however without sufficient salmon in the area she was metabolizing her own blubber for energy, releasing toxins stored in her fat, very likely poisoning her.

The killer whales on the west coast are iconic and once these animals grace your life, the memories will stay with you forever. They are complex, incredibly social and highly family oriented. They take care of each other and seem to display emotions that can only be explained in human terms.

Stay tuned thorughout the week as we unpack the story of Polaris and Dipper in a six part series. 


Courtney Halvorson is a PNW educated Marine Biologist, Wildlife Photographer and Marine Naturalist for Orca Spirit Adventures in Victoria, British Columbia.