NOAA Fisheries scientists are leading the effort to answer key questions about the risk factors potentially affecting killer whales, with a special focus on the Southern Resident population. Current research focuses on killer whales’ behavior, ecology, health, and human-caused impacts.

Shipboard Studies

Our scientists and collaborators collected length and width data for killer whales using both vessel-based laser photogrammetry and aerial photography from an unmanned aerial systems (hexacopters). These metrics will be used to infer growth trends and current body condition, respectively, which will be related to trends in returning Chinook salmon—the whales’ primary prey. This research aims to provide a comparative assessment of nutritional status to guide management of these two protected populations.

Learn more about our photogrammetry research (PDF)

A Southern Resident killer whale "spy hopping."

A Southern Resident killer whale "spy hopping" off San Juan Island, Washington. Photo: NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

Satellite Tagging

Together with our partners, we track location data from satellite tags deployed on whales. This research helps determine the winter migration, feeding habits, and range of Southern Residents.

Learn more about Southern Resident killer whale tagging

Acoustic Science

NOAA Fisheries' researchers and collaborators use digital acoustic recording tags, recording the sounds they receive and the sounds they produce, to examine sound exposure, sound use, and behavior of Southern Residents in their summer habitat. This research helps address threats like vessel disturbance, noise exposure, and effects on feeding.

Learn more about digital acoustic recording tags

Measuring Pollutant Transfer From Mothers to Offspring

Scientists study the transfer of pollutants from mother to offspring through blood during gestation and through milk during lactation. This research helps us understand whether young whales are at greater risk than adults for negative health effects from pollutants.

Learn more about pollutant transfer

Measuring Energy Costs to Produce Sounds

Our scientists study the amount of energy dolphins need to produce loud sounds. Because dolphins and killer whales are related, research on dolphins is also applicable to killer whales. This research addresses the biological costs of environmental noise, as animals must produce louder sounds when human activities generate noise underwater.

Learn more about marine mammal sound production

Stock Assessments

Determining the size of killer whale populations helps resource managers determine the success of conservation measures and regulations. Our scientists collect population information on killer whales from various sources and present the data in annual stock assessment reports.

Southern Resident Killer Whale Monitoring & Research

Check out what our scientists from the West Coast Region are working on