Join me in the cold, dark, life-sustaining NE Pacific Ocean to discover the great beauty, mystery and fragility hidden there.

Where are the Whales?!

A member of the A12 matriline of Northern Resident Killer Whales spyhops in Johnstone Strait. Likely A55 (aka “Echo”); male born in 1990. Photo by Jackie Hildering.

Where are the whales?!

If I had a dollar for every time I have been asked that question, I could now purchase an E-Tec engine for my little research boat and live with a clearer and cleaner carbon conscience!

It is indeed the question most often asked of marine naturalists and suggests that there are those who believe that there is incredible predictability to viewing wild whales; that there may even be a single location where they will always be found.

I have found that this is particularly true in reference to Killer Whales and that a significant number of people appear to believe that the Michael Bigg (Robson Bight) Ecological Reserve in Johnstone Strait will always have Killer Whales within its boundaries (see here for information on beach-rubbing).

Of course, it does not help comprehension that the inshore fishing-eating populations of British Columbia have been named “Residents”. This leads to Northern Vancouver Island often being promoted as “home” to a population of some 300 [2016 estimate] members of the Northern Resident Population.

In answering “Where are the whales”, I will make the point that you can never quite know where wild whales are and, when I think I can get away with being a little bit cheeky – which thankfully is quite often – I will make this point by with the answer “The whales are underwater”.

But, it is of course true that Northern Vancouver Island is possibly the most predictable place on earth to see Killer Whales and that it is our extraordinary privilege to live in the area that is a mecca for those hoping to see them – and so much more marine wildlife. However, the Killer Whales are not “resident” and they are not in this area in the 100s.

My answer to “Where are the whales” must therefore also explain that Killer Whales have culture; they have evolved into discrete “ecotypes” whose lifestyles have been shaped by what they eat.

BC’s waters have two populations of highly vocal and social in-shore fish-eating killer whales that love to snack on salmon (the northern and southern “Residents”); a population of stealthy marine-mammal-eating killer whales (“Transients” also known as “Bigg’s Killer Whales”); and a fish-eating population that is more often off the continental shelf and whose diet includes sharks (“Offshores”).

In order to preserve the culture that allows them to specialize on different prey, none of these populations mate with one another. The predictability of seeing them is dependent on where their prey is and how stealthy they have to be to successfully hunt.

Johnstone Strait is the only waterway that allows full passage on the inside of Vancouver Island and therefore it is like a funnel for the salmon traveling to natal rivers further south to spawn. This is why, most often, there are some families (“matrilines”) of the Northern Resident Population in our area from July into October/November. This is when the salmon are running and the Killer Whales are especially present when there is the opportunity to pursue fatty Chinook salmon.

Sometimes, presumably when whale bellies are full enough, there will be some 100 madly socializing members of the Northern Resident Killer Whale population around Johnstone Strait. However, this is a rarity since the families have different affinities for areas of BC’s coast.  There are some families, like the A34s and the A30s, that have an extraordinary affinity for fishing in this area, while there are other families like the Hs and Rs that very rarely chase the salmon around Johnstone Strait. Sometimes we even have groups of Southern Residents transiting through the area – this is the endangered population that is more often found near Victoria.

In contrast to Residents, there is less seasonality in the movements of the marine-mammal-eating “Transient” killer whales since seals, sea lions, dolphins, porpoises, etc, can be here year round.  But, but, but . . . this does not mean that if you see a Killer Whale in our area in the winter, it is a Transient!

Resident killer whales can be here in the winter as well, but unlike at other times of the year, it is usually not for more than a day at a time and they likely are here to feed on other fish species like halibut. The OrcaLab on Hanson Island monitors whale vocals year round and, since every northern resident family’s calls are distinct, they can even conclude which families are in the area 

Despite all this knowledge, there is so much we do not know about BC’s Killer Whales and the threats that have necessitated all populations getting protection under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

For Species at Risk Act “Status Reports” on the Pacific Northeast populations of Killer Whales – click the links below:

 

2 Responses to “Where are the Whales?!”

    • The Marine Detective

      Yahoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!! What a massive motivator. What a great kindness Seabed Habitats. It will take me a few days to pass the torch of Liebster but it is coming! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

      Reply

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