Not so long ago the Killer Whale or Orca, a highly intelligent and sociable marine mammal, were seen as ferocious killers to be feared and destroyed. We almost succeeded in their destruction through whaling and other questionable methods. Due to their feeding habits, sometimes perceived as competition to local and commercial fishermen, the Canadian government even went as far as to install a machine gun near Seymour Narrows, in Johnstone Strait British Columbia, in an attempt to cull them. Fortunately, the machine gun was never fired. Luckily we took a second look at these splendid creatures and found an astonishingly clever animal, we call the Orca.
Mistakenly labelled a whale, the orca actually belongs to the dolphin family. There are 3 types of Orca in our part of the world, the Biggs (transient), Resident and Offshore. We most regularly and predictably see the Northern Resident Killer Whale. For a few months every summer up to 280 northern residents orcas return to our backyard, namely Johnstone Strait and the Queen Charlotte Strait. Though physically similar, the Biggs (or transient) killer whale and Resident killer whale resemblances end here. Residents eat only fish and cephalopods whereas the transient’s diet consists exclusively of marine mammals.
The only way of visually discerning the two groups other than by the dorsal fin, is by the saddle patch, a light colored area located right behind the dorsal fin. The fins of a transient are more pointed, resembling a shark’s, while that of the resident is rounder at the tip.
While residents are very vocal and travel and hunt in large groups, transients prefer to keep their company small and are silent predators. Residents are a very social bunch. Young whales of both sexes stay with their mothers all of their lives living in what we call a matrilineal family group or pod.
Each pod consists of the matriarch (the eldest female), her offspring (both male and female) and her daughter’s offspring. The males will occasionally leave the pod in order to mate but return to their mothers and siblings. There are 16 northern resident pods in total making up 3 clans, which scientists and researchers have designated with a letter of the alphabet. The 3 clans are:
A, G and R.
A clan consists of the following pods: A1, A4, A5, B1, C1, D1
G clan consists of: G1, I11
R clan consists of two pods: R1
The A’s are the most frequently sighted group in Johnstone Strait .
The 280 or so northern resident orcas are ranked as threatened as per SARA –.
There are now only 79 Southern residents killer whales and they have been posted as endangered by SARA. Their habitat is found near southern Vancouver Island and into Washington State, a more populated and industrialized area, a factor that may contribute to their lower numbers.
It is possible to identify individual Orcas. Dorsal fins often get nicks and cuts or scars and saddle patches are identifiable to the trained eye. Each pod also has a unique vocal dialect that consists of a series of squeaks and clicks that are recognizable with the help of a hydrophone.
All the whales have been named. You may see them on the following website which is dedicated to research and conservation of wild killer whales. An adoption program was created where the public may choose a specific whale or pod and adopt them. For more details please take a look at:
Many people have concerns as to whether Orcas are a threat to humans. Can they tip over a kayak? Can transients confuse a human for a seal in certain circumstances? To the best of my knowledge, there is no record of a wild Orcas ever harming a human. They possess sonar like systems known as echolocation, much like bats use and thus are proficient at detecting objects that surround them. Only a few cases have been reported of captive Orcas harming a human and in one case, killing their handler in a marine theme park. If anything, we are the ones that are a threat to their existence. Despite surviving whaling, hunting, harvesting for marine theme parks and dodging bullets, they continue to face more anthropogenic threats, this time the threat being more chronic and perhaps even deadlier.
Pop’s or Persistent Organic Pollutants such as PCB’s, PCP’s DDT’s and other environmental contaminators, even though they are now banned in Canada, continue to wreak havoc on the environment. Because everything is connected in nature, the tiniest organisms that are infected pass on the contaminants to the bigger fish that eat them. This process continues all the way up to the top of the food chain, each time the toxicity getting more condensed. Studies have shown the Orcas, being at the top of this food chain, to be among the most contaminated mammal in the world.
Depletion of wild salmon, the favorite food of the Orcas, marks the biggest obstacle to their recovery. Disease and sea lice thought to come from fish farms, a highly controversial subject here on the coast of British Columbia, is also thought to be a factor in the declination of wild salmon. The introduction of non-native species to any habitat, whether by accident or intentional, is fast becoming a serious issue. Escaped farmed Atlantic salmon can now be found in Johnstone Strait. The consequences are not clear and the topic is extremely contentious.
HAB’s Harmful Algal Blooms (ex: paralytic shellfish poisoning) produce toxins, and though not man made, pose a threat to the health of the Orcas.
Scientists are currently researching the effect of acoustic disturbances on the whales that are coming from high levels of boat traffic, air guns used for seismic research and military sonar. We know hearing is vital to the whales’ survival. Their ability to detect prey and communicate with one another all depends on their ability to hear clearly.
In addition to all these threats, the population has a slow growth rate. Females become sexually mature at about 15 years of age and only produce one calf every 5-6 years with a gestation period of 16- 17 months. Calves have a mortality rate of about 45%, this means every calf born has an approximate 50-50 chance of survival.
An increase in tourism has been bringing more and more people from all over the world to Johnstone Strait. Their intent is to get as close to the Orcas as possible, either by kayak or on whale watching boats. Hence, a set of whale watching guidelines has been created in order to minimize this additional stress. See Cetus Research & Conservation Society for further information on how we try to monitor and minimize impacts.
The Robson Bight Ecological Reserve, is located off the northeastern side of Vancouver Island, about 20km (12 miles) south of the tiny fishing village of Telegraph Cove. This conservancy is a haven for the popular killer whales and is off limits to the general public. Dotted with rubbing beaches, the sanctuary enables the whales to carry out their natural behaviors in peace. No one knows exactly why they rub their bellies on these pebble-strewn beaches. Some think that the scraping helps keep their skins soft and free of debris, like barnacles, enabling them to swim smoothly and more freely through the water. Robson Bight can only be reached by water; there are no roads or trails that lead to it.
Where these creatures go in the winter remains a mystery. This kind of information would help tremendously with understanding them better and would reveal a wealth of information on their diet and other habits. The more knowledge we have, the more we can help starting to right the chaos we have evoked on their world.
For more information on the Northern Resident Orcas, please take a look at the following links
For non intrusive Orca encounters from a kayak,
please contact North Island Kayak: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website at www.kayakbc.ca
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