BC’s Orca

BC’s marine ecosystem is home to hundreds of orcas — creatures so intelligent, social, and visually stunning that they have inspired legends among First Nations and fear in early settlers, and now attracted legions of fans.

Their fame was evident this spring as people around the world followed the tale of Brave Little Hunter. The two-year-old transient orca was orphaned–and left trapped in a lagoon near Zeballos on Vancouver Island- when her mother Spong died after stranding herself hunting. For weeks, local residents and researchers monitored the youngster, tried in vain to trap her in order to move her, and eventually fed her seal meat. One night the young whale finally made her way out of the lagoon to the open ocean, where it is hoped she will find her family pod. 

During her month-plus stranding in the Zeballos lagoon, Brave Little Hunter was monitored and fed by volunteers and local First Nations. Photo credit: Zeballos Inn

What Are Orcas?

There are many misconceptions about Orcinus orca, the marine mammal also known as blackfish, grampus, Qaqawun, Max’inux, Ska-ana, Devil Fish, Wolves of the Sea, and Killer Whales. The last name is the most popular and also apt because orcas are the top ocean predators. However they are not, in fact, whales. 

Killer Whales are the largest of the world’s 35 species of oceanic dolphins, and they inhabit almost all the world’s oceans. Males range from 6 to 8 meters long and can weigh more than 6 tonnes, with dorsal fins as high as 2 meters. Females are slightly smaller at 5 to 7 meters long, weighing up to 4 tonnes, with dorsal fins as high as 1.5 meters.

The life span of orcas is comparable to that of humans, with an expected age of 70 years or more. 

Orcas in BC face inter-related threats to their survival including food shortages, vessel strikes, underwater noise and pollution. Because orcas are at the top of the food chain and live for a long time, toxins from pollution like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) concentrate in their bodies, harming their immune and reproductive systems and raising their risk of cancer.

Orcas have inhabited the ocean off BC for hundreds of thousands of years, but some populations are now at great risk from human activities. To survive the animals need all the help that we can give them, and will benefit from Marine Protected Areas.

A study that examined 52 necropsies of killer whales found that out of a total of nine southern resident killer whales that were studied, at least four died because of traumatic incidents likely related to vessel strikes. Photo credit: Vancouver Aquarium/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Orcas Are Smart

“Orca brains are enormous, about 5 times the size of humans,” according to the  Orca Network, with a complexity “capable of supporting a degree of consciousness that could allow culturally acquired, meaningful communication.”

Each group of orcas vocalizes differently, notes the Orca Network, and “orcas use a communication system we might as well call language.”

“Every member of any given pod or matriline uses the same set of calls, and the majority of calls are shared with the whole community,” it said. “Cultural rules for behaviour are probably communicated by vocal expressions.” 

An unusual trend swept across the orca population in the 80s. Just as mullets became a popular human hair fashion, orcas in Puget Sound were spotted wearing “hats” of dead salmon. 

Orcas Are Predators

On the hunt for salmon or seals, at play, and on the move, orcas frequently dive deeper than 100 meters, can swim as fast as 56 kph, and travel as far as 90 to even 175 kilometres in a day. 

All orcas are toothsome carnivores, who hunt cooperatively in packs or pods and communicate using clicks, whistles, and calls. 

They use echolocation to navigate and find prey, according to Orca Lab. Their sounds pass through the water until they hit an object then boomerang back to the orca, revealing the object’s location, size, and shape. 

Up to 80% of the diets of southern resident killer whales consist of Chinook salmon. Photo credit: Su Kim, NOAA Fisheries

Orcas Are Social

Orcas are matrilineal, and highly social-especially the subpopulation called Residents, who live lifelong alongside their mothers in pods centred around grandmothers and great-grandmothers. 

Female orcas, along with humans and belugas, are among the few mammals that go through menopause. Female orcas that are past child-bearing age are the leaders of their clans.

Orcas have deep attachments to each other. In 2018 the orca known as Tahlequah, or J35, carried her stillborn calf at the surface of the sea for more than two weeks.

Orca researcher Paul Spong has alleged that the death of J35’s calf could be connected to viruses produced by open-net salmon farming on the BC coast. Photo credit: Kelley Balcomb-Bartok.

Types of Orcas in BC

BC’s four separate populations have evolved with distinct sounds, foods, behaviours, and appearance. The habitat of the four types sometimes overlaps, but the types do not mix socially, breed with each other, or share the same “dialects.”

The two populations of Resident orcas are Southern Resident Killer Whales or SRKW, with a population of about 75, and Northern Resident Killer Whales or NRKW, numbering about 300. Both populations of Resident orcas eat exclusively salmon, with a strong preference for Chinook. Southern Residents are most frequently seen in the Salish Sea off BC and Washington State. Northern Residents range between Washington State and Alaska, and are mostly sighted in BC off northern Vancouver Island.

The dorsal fins of Resident orcas are rounded on the tip, and most have open white saddle patches. Residents are the most social and vocal of BC’s orcas. 

Recently, UBC scientists observed a group of orcas hunting off the coast of Oregon and California which they believe are an entirely new population. Image credit: Lucy Molleson for WDC.

The third population is composed of Transient orcas, also called Bigg’s killer whales after whale biologist Michael Bigg, who pioneered research on them. Transients are fierce hunters and eat a varied diet of mammals–mainly sea lions and seals, but including other kinds of dolphins and occasionally young whales.

A fourth and little-understood population is composed of Offshore orcas, which hunt sharks and other fish in deepwater off the coast.

Researchers identify the animals by each one’s unique fin shape, markings, scars, and colour patterns. Individuals are named with letters and numbers. Many–like Brave Little Hunter–also carry human nicknames. Among Residents, the first character of an orca’s name is the letter of their pod, followed by numbers of that pod in sequence.  Transient orca names all begin with T, followed by letters and numbers to indicate their matrilineage.

Orca Clans and Pods

Southern Residents are one single clan, with subgroups known as J Pod, K Pod, and L Pod. They are mostly seen in the Salish Sea, and are one of the most-studied populations of marine animals on earth, with every individual identified by researchers. Southern Residents can often be seen at play, chasing each other, swimming in the wake of vessels, toying with driftwood or draping kelp over their bodies.

Northern Resident orcas are divided into three clans, A, G and R, each with several pods ranging from one to 34 individuals. They are mostly sighted north of Vancouver Island, but their range extends from Washington State to Alaska. Northern Residents are known for rubbing their bodies on rocks at smooth, shallow beaches, sometimes for hours at a time, notes Orca Lab.

Caption: Scientists have argued that beach-rubbing is a key example of authentic animal culture, where sub-populations of species develop and sustain learned behaviors across generations.

Transient orcas are larger than Residents, and their dorsal fins are more pointy and shark-like. Their saddle patches are grey. Like Southern Residents they are often spotted in the Salish Sea, as well as on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. Researchers have relatively less data about them.   

Offshore orcas, first discovered in 1988, are a bit of a mystery. Researchers suspect they range between the Aleutian Islands and Southern California, and travel and hunt in groups of 100 to 200 individuals. Most sightings of Offshore orcas in BC waters are off Haida Gwaii and the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Offshore orcas appear to be smaller than Residents or Transients, and females have a rounder dorsal fin tip. They are thought to hunt sharks and other fish, according to the Center for Whale Research. Their sound is quite distinct from the voices of Residents and Transients,  reports the Orca Network. “Offshores share a distinct repertoire of discrete calls, completely unlike those recorded from other communities.”

Orca Population Status

One study found that over two-thirds of southern resident killer whale pregnancies failed between 2008 and 2014. One suspected cause was that mothers were not getting enough salmon to eat. Image credit: Oceana

All orcas in BC are protected under the Fisheries Act Marine Mammal Regulations. It is illegal to harm, harass or kill an orca in Canada, and governments and conservation organizations have many programs in place to aid them. Despite that, all orcas face major threats-and one population, Southern Residents, are on the brink of extinction. Threats, according to the federal government, include reduced prey, environmental contaminants, physical disturbance, underwater noise, and vessel strikes.

Because orcas are at the top of the food chain, toxins from pollution concentrate in their bodies over their life span of up to 70 years. Of all marine animals, orcas are especially vulnerable to pollution from polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which persist indefinitely in the environment and are still widely used around the world despite bans in some countries. These toxins harm reproduction and immune systems and cause cancer. 

A paper in the journal Science six years ago predicted that because of PCB concentrations in their bodies, more than half the world populations of orcas will collapse in the next century. 

BC’s 75 Endangered Southern Residents place first in the grim ranking of orca risk. Marine mammal toxicologist Peter Ross told CBC that these killer whales are the marine mammals most contaminated by polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) on the planet.

Toxins, along with a shortage of Chinook salmon, are suspected as the reason an estimated 50% of Southern Resident’s offspring dies in the first year of life.

Modern threats are compounded by the fact the Southern Resident clan never recovered from the era in the 1960s and 70s when Canada and the U.S. allowed their capture and sale to aquatic amusement parks around the world. 

Corky is the oldest and longest kept captive orca in the world. She was captured from Pender Harbour off the coast of BC in 1969 when she was just four. She now lives at SeaWorld San Diego.

“The abductors killed at least 13 orcas during the captures; 45 whales ended up in parks across the globe. No Southern Resident Killer Whale remains alive in captivity,” according to the Center for Whale Research. Just 71 orcas remained. Their population grew to 98 in the mid-1990s, and has been in decline since then. 

Researchers predict that Southern Residents will soon become extinct unless there is dramatic change. “Preventing extinction is still possible but will require greater sacrifices on regional ocean use, urban development, and land use practices, than would have been the case had threats been mitigated even a decade earlier,” said a paper this spring in the science journal Nature. It added, “many threats are expected to worsen in future.” This spring the federal government announced new measures including the closure of certain salmon fisheries, new slow-down zones for ships, and banned vessels and fishing in two summer feeding zones. 

The population of Northern Residents is in better shape than their Southern cousins, and is increasing slowly.

Less is known about Transients, but of estimated population of 350 in BC and is growing at about 4% each year, according to Howard Garrett, president of the Orca Network.  Transients eat a far more expansive diet than the salmon-eating residents, and benefit from the growth in BC’s seal population with the West Coast of Vancouver Island especially a rich hunting ground, said Garrett.

Orcas In Stories

Within Indigenous traditions, orcas represent luck, compassion, and familial bonds. They are also revered as the protectors and guardians of the sea. Image credit:  Lavanya Naidu on Printerval

To Indigenous residents, notes a display at The Royal British Columbia Museum, orcas are ancestors and kin and “are treated as family and respected like elders.”

“Indigenous peoples remember, through oral histories, when orcas walked on land. In stories that have been told since time immemorial, orcas can transform themselves into humans or other animals. They can communicate with people, and with all beings, to share wisdom, wealth, power and healing. They can enter our world and sometimes people enter theirs.”

After Europeans arrived in BC and up to about 50 years ago, orcas were seen as dangerous and threatening-and also as competition for resources by commercial fishmen. For decades, orcas were shot on sight. Killer whales were seen “not just as vermin species but potentially dangerous,” University of Victoria historian Jason Colby told CBC.

When Moby Doll was harpooned, two other whales propped up him up to ensure he did not drown.

In 1964 the tragic case of a five-year-old orca named Moby Doll began to change that perception, and is documented in the book “The Killer Whale Who Changed the World.” The young whale survived being harpooned and was hauled, on the line attached to the harpoon in his back, to a Vancouver Aquarium pen. He lived there for three months, and in that time inspired scientists who worked with him to change their view of orcas, and eventually start the successful campaign against commercial whale hunting and, recently, the keeping of intelligent cetaceans in captivity.

The popular view of orcas has now changed so dramatically they’re now a popular children’s book, Granny’s Clan features Granny–AKA J2–who was at least 80 years old when she died in 2016.

Orcas are today prominent in BC art, murals, greeting cards, and represented by the massive sculpture Digital Orca by Douglas Coupland, which looms over Vancouver’s waterfront in view of the passing container ships and oil tankers that threaten orca habitat.

According to Douglas Coupland, “Through the act of pixelizing an orca whale in three dimensions – a process that creates a crackling and unexpected sensation in the viewers mind – the orca cliché is turned upside down and what we thought we knew well is rendered exciting and new.” Photo credit: Deborah Jones

How Do Marine Protected Areas Help Orcas?

To learn more about marine protected areas and how they work, check out this article. or this paper from the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference.

To learn more about Orcas, check out these organizations:

Watch and listen in real time to orca webcams and underwater microphones at Orcalab, a science centre on Hanson Island founded by whale researcher Dr. Paul Spong.

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