A bond through salmon, language and grandmothers

Connection, captivity, and consciousness explored in the Royal BC Museum’s new book Spirits of the Coast: Orcas in science, art and history.

About a year ago, I got a call from the Royal British Columbia Museum asking if I would like to contribute a chapter to a book they were producing on killer whales. I felt both honoured and anxious, but readily agreed. I recently received my copy of the published book in the mail. Not only is the book visually beautiful, it is an incredible collection of voices and perspectives, from the scientific through to the artistic, philosophical, and cultural. 

As I read the chapters in the book, I am in awe of my co-contributors and their personal experiences and stories of the ways these whales have touched them through their lifetimes. The one common theme in all the chapters is that all of us are ‘united by our enchantment’ with these remarkable animals.

The book is organized into three sections: connection, captivity and consciousness. My chapter, A bond through salmon, language and grandmothers is situated in the first section, Connections. It begins with an exploration of culture in animal populations, its presence in resident killer whales, and the complexity of interactions with salmon that have enabled an ecological and cultural dependence to evolve over tens of thousands of years. It equally explores the many ways that the human footprint has put the survival of these family groups in jeopardy.

The Whale Family Tree by Ray Troll.
I am thrilled that Ray Troll’s The Whale Family Tree kicks off my chapter, as I am a huge fan of his work.

My chapter also starts with Ray Troll’s depiction of the whale family tree; it includes aerial images of Southern Residents by the SR3 and Oceanwise research teams (thank you John and Holly), Chinook salmon by coastal photographer April Bencze, and more.

The book was produced to accompany the Royal BC Museum’s 2020 feature exhibition Orcas: Our Shared Future which, due to the pandemic, is rescheduled to now open in May 2021. 

Reading or gifting this book is an opportunity to celebrate these animals.  Further awareness of their presence and plight can only aid efforts to protect them. I’ve provided a short extract from my chapter below that begins the exploration into their bond with salmon.  If you want to learn more about Raincoast’s work to support recovery of the Southern Resident killer whales visit our site. 

For these Spirits of the Coast,


Spirits of the Coast excerpt

in A bond through salmon, language and grandmothers

…The J clan of resident killer whales occupy the most southern of the eastern Pacific distribution, earning them their “Southern Resident” moniker. Their hunting grounds cover the migration routes of Chinook salmon ranging from as far south as Monterey Bay to Vancouver Island and the Salish Sea in the north. But to find Chinook salmon the whales need to know more than where to look for them, they also need to know when to look. More than any other salmon species, Chinook throughout this range can be found returning to their natal rivers almost any month of the year. One river system, the Sacramento -San Joaquin in California’s central valley, had runs of adult Chinook every month of the year. The spring portion of these runs was often the largest and usually began in March. In the Central Valley, the first Chinook to arrive in the spring run overlapped with the last arrivals of the winter run. Killer whales would have known that heading to California in the late winter was a good bet….

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.