“Superpod” by Nora Nickum – A Journey Through the Amazing and (somewhat) Mysterious World of the Southern Resident Orcas

Nora Nickum headshot - image provided by Nora NickumFor a young Nora Nickum, making the short journey to San Juan Island each summer was filled with excitement and anticipation—this was the place where she waited each year to catch a glimpse of the endangered Southern Resident orcas that have historically visited the waters of the Salish Sea each year in search of food. The tell-tale “pffft” as they come up for air, the black fins rising and falling as they frolic and play—that was the most exciting part of these trips.

Nora grew up on Bainbridge Island, attended Blakely Elementary, Commodore Middle School, and Bainbridge High School. Like most young people, she left home to attend college, then began a career in the human rights and climate change fields in Washington DC and Quito (Ecuador) before returning to school to obtain her Master’s Degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School. Of course, the call of the Pacific Northwest, irresistible to many, but especially to those that grew up here, was too strong to resist and she returned to the Seattle area. In 2017, Nora and her husband Stuart (also a BI native and BHS graduate) moved back to Bainbridge with their young daughter Sabina. “We wanted to move back to be close to our families and to raise our daughter in a place that had been wonderful for both of us to grow up in,” she told me.

Nora continued her work in the climate change field, working for Cascadia Consulting Group as the lead for the Climate, Sustainability, and Natural Resource Planning practice area. In 2018 she took a position with the Seattle Aquarium, working as the Ocean Policy Manager until 2022, when she became their Senior Ocean Policy Manager. In addition to her work with the Seattle Aquarium, she served on the COBI Climate Change Advisory Committee from 2018-2020 and COBI’s Plastic and Waste Reduction Task Force in 2021. In January 2023, Nora joined the board of Bainbridge Island Land Trust.

Superpod cover with JLG seal - image provided by Nora NickumAs the Senior Ocean Policy Manager at the aquarium, Nora works on advancing policies at the state and federal levels that will help protect ocean health. “Two of my biggest areas of focus are plastic pollution and orca recovery. I sit on the Leadership Committee for Quiet Sound, a program that is working to reduce noise and disturbance impacts from commercial ships on the endangered orcas,” she explained. “My work feels really rewarding, and it’s also really fun to work at a place where I can go say hello to a sea otter, wolf eel, or Giant Pacific octopus anytime.”

All of her life and career experiences have taken her on a magical journey filled with joy, sadness and determination to share with others the plight of the endangered Southern Residents. She started working on Superpod in the summer of 2021, after her proposal for the nonfiction middle-grade book was accepted by Chicago Review Press. “I did all the research and writing outside of my day job at the Seattle Aquarium—mostly in the early mornings and on weekends—so it was a busy time. It took me about 8 months to do interviews, read journal articles about the latest science, collect the best photos I could find from all different sources, and write the book. Starting in late spring 2022, I worked with the editor and the design team to polish everything, create maps and orca family trees, and get it ready to go to the publisher at the end of the year.”

Three Pods, One Family - image excerpt from Superpods provided by Nora NickumIn Superpod, Nora takes us through the lives of the Southern Residents, known as J, K, and L pods. In Chapter 1 “Tahlequah: 17 Days and 1,000 Miles”, she shares the heartbreaking journey of the 20-year-old orca, who gave birth and whose calf died a mere 30 minutes later. You probably recall the news stories that followed Tahlequah’s painful moments as she balanced her dead calf on her head, pushed it to the surface and sometimes carried it in her mouth.

However, the book doesn’t just reflect upon the plight of the Southern Residents, it also celebrates them, their resilience through years of capture and captivity, dwindling bloodlines and amazing (yet limited) return to our waters. Nora explains how the pods are designated, how the individual orcas got their names, the importance of their diet, and why they’re different from other orca populations.

Author testifies in WA state legislature - TVW - image provided by Nora NickumShe also shares 50 decades of progress protecting these wonderous creatures, through advocacy, new laws, and scientific study using a variety of methods, including drones and a special canine named Eba who helps scientists track orca scat (poop) so that it can be collected for further study into the health of the whales. In Superpod, there are a ton of fun facts about these endangered whales, and, as Nora notes, they are like humans in a lot of ways. “They share food with each other; they learn from their grandmothers; they grieve when they lose someone; they recognize each other’s voices; they babysit and make best friends and play.” In addition, we learn about the amazing people that advocate for their survival and continued growth, including the Lummi Nation, and what we as a community can do to help the Southern Residents flourish.

Playing at Sea - Superpod excerpt provided by Nora Nickum“I had some great experiences meeting orca scientists and other experts out in the field. One particularly memorable day was when I joined Dr. Deborah Giles from Wild Orca and her amazing dog Eba out on a boat in the San Juan Islands to try to collect orca scat. Eba can detect the smell of orca scat from up to a mile away,” Nora shared. “We were following several hundred yards behind the whales so as not to disturb them, so I could just see their dorsal fins and misty breath as they came out of the water. My husband and young daughter were actually watching from shore as we went by, and they got a much closer view of the whales!” This experience is well documented in Superpod, and (to me at least) it was utterly fascinating to learn about. If you’d like to learn more about Eba and Dr. Giles, there is a 10-minute Seattle Aquarium film, which includes an interview by Nora: Eba + the Orcas – Stories from the Salish Sea (seattleaquarium.org).

Nora noted that the orcas regularly swim by Bainbridge Island and can be seen from our local beaches (something she bashfully admits she didn’t realize until just a few years ago). “The Southern Residents come down into Central and South Puget Sound in the fall and early winter in search of chum and coho salmon. They prefer Chinook transient orca from shore - Nora Nickumbecause those are bigger and fattier, but they find more of those in the spring and summer,” she pointed out. “It’s fun to follow the Orca Network Facebook page and head out to try to spot orcas from shore when they’re in the area.” She and her family frequently hurry down to the beaches of Rockaway Beach, Fort Ward and Fay Bainbridge when the alerts come through, sometimes getting lucky and spotting orcas.

“One time we were up at the labyrinth high on the hill above Blakely Harbor and I thought I heard an orca’s blow—that distinctive pffft as it breathes out—but I thought it was pretty unlikely there would be whales in the harbor,” she recalled. “Then my daughter shouted out that she’d spotted a black dorsal fin. It turns out transient orcas had made an unusual detour into Blakely Harbor in pursuit of harbor porpoises! Transient orcas, also known as Bigg’s killer whales, eat marine mammals—unlike the endangered Southern Resident orcas, which eat salmon.”

Shore based whale-watching at Lime Kiln - Nora Nickum“In Superpod, readers will hear from scientists about some of the latest things they’re learning about this whale population, using everything from Fitbit-like suction cup tags to samples of whale breath to aerial videos,” Nora explained. You’ll learn about the individual orcas, like Cookie, Onyx, and Shachi. “The Southern Resident orcas all have names and unique saddlepatch patterns—that’s the white swoosh behind their tall dorsal fin—and compelling life stories.”

Although the book is geared particularly toward kids in upper elementary and middle school, it will definitely be of interest to readers of all ages. Nora also shares resources for individuals and educators to learn and teach about the ways we can help protect the endangered Southern Residents.

Copies of Superpod: Saving the Endangered Orcas of the Pacific Northwest are available at Eagle Harbor Books and everywhere else books are sold.

Upcoming Book Events:

  • Seattle Aquarium book signing, April 16, 10:30-12:30 – Stop by to get a signed copy of the book and chat about orcas. Requires paying admission to the Aquarium—but then you can check out all the amazing animals!

Superpod is Nora’s first published book. She has a forthcoming nonfiction picture book titled THIS BOOK IS FULL OF HOLES (coming out in spring 2024). She has also published stories in Cricket and Muse magazines and is currently working on other projects. To keep up with Nora’s upcoming work and find other upcoming book events and teaching resources, visit her website at www.noranickum.com or follow her on Twitter or Instagram (@noranickumbooks).

*Images provided by and used with permission from Nora Nickum

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