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What’s the Bigg’s Deal?!

Dr. Michael Bigg

Super hero – Dr. Michael Bigg. Achieved so much before passing at just age 51 (1939 to 1990). Photo ©Graeme Ellis.

Post from 2013. Updated December 2019.

What’s the Bigg’s Deal?  I’ve been asked this a lot lately: “Why are the mammal-hunting killer whales being referenced as “Bigg’s Killer Whales” rather than as “Transients” as they were previously known?”

This is because a 2010 study found that the mammal-hunting ecotype of Killer Whales / Orca diverged from the other ecotypes some 700,000 years ago and the researchers (Morin et al) put forward that they be recognized as a distinct species.

If they are to be recognized as such, many in whale-research-world believe it is only appropriate that the species be named in honour of the late and great Dr. Michael Bigg whose pioneering Killer Whale ID research in the eastern North Pacific in the 1970s – 1980s revealed that Killer Whales have distinct populations and that there are very limited numbers within these populations.

Ultimately, his research led to the understanding that Killer Whale populations have distinct cultures.

This knowledge of course had huge conservation implications. It was previously believed that there were abundant Killer Whales in the eastern North Pacific and that they all eat salmon in addition to marine mammals; rather than the reality that there are four at risk populations that are genetically and ecologically distinct:

  • 1.  Bigg’s Killer Whales are marine mammal-hunters (they also eat an occasional bird and, very rarely, a terrestrial mammal). Because they are hunting marine mammals, they generally have to be stealthy and unpredictable (when hungry). The population estimate for this threatened population is ~349 individuals (end of 2018) that are more often along coastal BC, with research ongoing regarding population numbers further off the coast (estimated to be at least 217 whales in 2011; see “Biggs/Transients” information at this link).  Their behaviour has changed in recent years, as reported by colleague researchers at the Marine Education and Research Society.   They are not so “transient” anymore. In some areas they are more commonly sighted than “Residents” and appear to be travelling, socializing and hunting in bigger groups. They also appear to be more vocal, especially after a kill.  This is believed to be due to changes in the location and density of their prey. More seals and sea lions means that they do not have to be as stealthy (65% of the diet of Bigg’s who feed along BC’s coast is seals and sea lions). Status report and further information at this link. Note that there are no documented incidents of Bigg’s Killer Whales in the wild ever injuring a human.
  • “Residents” are inshore fish-eating Killer Whales (ingesting an occasional squid too) and there are two distinct populations. The vast majority of their fish diet is salmon and of the salmon species, their absolute favourite is Chinook. (Their diet is also known to include lingcod, halibut, herring, squid, rockfish, flounder). Because salmon is so predictable (salmon return to the river of their birth to spawn and die) and because fish have very bad hearing, these populations of Killer Whales can afford to be highly vocal and use echolocation a lot. 
    • 2. The Northern “Residents” are a threatened population of some ~302 whales (2018) more often found in northern British Columbia but also in southeastern Alaska and Washington State. Status report and further information here. For the story of one N. Resident Killer Whale family (the A23s) and what their story reveals about us, click here.
    • 3. The Southern “Residents” are most often swimming around southern British Columbia and Washington State but are sometimes also in the waters of northern British Columbia, Oregon and California. At only 72 individuals (2019), this population is recognized as being endangered. Status report and further information here.
  •  4. Offshore Killer Whales are fish-eaters often found along the continental shelf from the Aleutian Islands to California. To date, published research has confirmed that their diet includes Pacific Sleeper Sharks and Pacific Halibut. The population estimate is 300 individuals (2013) and this too is a threatened population. Status report and further information here.

Summary I made for our Marine Education and Naturalist Society Marine Naturalist Course (2021).

Through the research of Dr. Bigg, the Killer Whales of British Columbia have been studied as individuals longer than any other marine mammal species on the planet – and not only marine species have benefited from this. We all have.

Due to his work, whereby the age, gender, diet and range is known for almost every Killer Whale in British Columbia, these whales “tell the story” of global chemical pollution. The work of Dr. Peter Ross examines the toxins in the blubber and indeed the Killer Whales of BC are the “canaries in the coal mine” informing the science that should shape international policies and regulations regarding toxins.

However, there is also much that has NOT changed since the days of Dr. Bigg’s pioneering Killer Whale research.

At that time, Killer Whales were the scapegoat for declining salmon populations and the “gold rush” on their being put into captivity was likely perceived as a favourable management tool.  Conservation costs money, not only for science and management, but also by limiting industries whose activities may negatively impact species at risk.

Flash forward some 40 years to 2013. Dr. Peter Ross’ work with Fisheries and Oceans Canada has been terminated as part of what can only be called the demise of Canada’s ocean contaminants research program and prior to his termination he, like so many other government scientists in Canada, has been constrained in being able to communicate about his research. (Update 2014: Dr. Ross now heads the Ocean Pollution Research Program at the Vancouver Aquarium).

The ultimate Bigg’s Deal is that one person can make a profound positive difference – replacing knowledge where fear and misunderstanding once dwelled.

However, to work against government forces that imperil our environment and suppress science in favour of short-term economic gain, it is going to take a very great many of us to make our voices and actions . . . Bigg-er.

What's the Bigg's Deal.001.001


For more information:

12 Responses to “What’s the Bigg’s Deal?!”

  1. Karen Gutrath

    Thanks for writing such a great article. It is nice to know that Uncle Michael is being remembered still today for his hard work and passion of marine wildlife. I have fond memories of visiting his memorial at the Vancouver Aquarium. We do not have that photo of him and we would love a printable copy. If you can, please email me a copy. Thanks

    • The Marine Detective

      Hello Karen, Thanks so for the feedback and it means a great deal that family members are reading the blog and that it may stimulate what must be so many positive memories. I got the photo from Michelle and will relay the request to her. Wishing you the very best!

    • robsonbight
      This link includes:
      This memorial site honors my friend, doctoral advisor and mentor and is hereby dedicated to his memory as the world’s recognized leading authority on Killer Whales upon his death on October 18, 1990.

      Dr. Michael Andrew Bigg earned his Masters and Doctorate at the University of British Columbia based on his groundbreaking research studies of Harbor Seals, while directing projects focusing on Fur Seals, Sea Lions and Sea Otters.

      It is however, his unique pioneering work with Killer Whales that he will always be best known. His name will forever be synonymous with the creation of conducted field research of Killer Whales, which is still the “benchmark” for all of today’s current cetacean research.

      In 1971, he was asked to count the number of Killer Whales present in region. This task was too large for one person, so Mike asked the general public to send in their sighting reports of Killer Whales during three individual censuses. This allowed him to come up with a more accurate estimate of the population size in British Columbia waters. He also discovered that each whale had unique “saddle” markings that allow it to be identified.

      I took the name “Robsonbight” to honor his memory, as his ashes were scattered in the Canadian waters of Johnston Strait in the region formerly known as “Robson Bight” which was renamed the “Robson Bight-Michael Bigg Ecological Reserve”. This private region is now set aside by the Canadian government to protect this unique Killer Whale habitat.

      Always glad to share his expertise and personal stories with anyone, Mike truly hated the word “Orca” when discussing Killer Whales and was very quick to correct you for that word to describe the ocean’s top predator.

      Please enjoy a quite moment to remember the “Father of Killer Whale Research” and his ever-lasting legacy.

      Gregory R. Mann, Ph.D. {ret.}
      Marine Biologist/Educator
      Lead Administrator

  2. Natasha

    Thats a great article. Well written, informative with a pinch of passion…

  3. Lyndsay with Dames Marine

    Growing up on the lower mainland, I had no idea that there were theories that there are different species of orca! I remember watching them from my family’s boats in the evenings, watching them breach with Vancouver Island in the background. The fact that we are still learning about these beautiful creatures is absolutely fascinating.

  4. Chantelle Syrette

    I’m so inspired to learn more about the transient and so concerned for the resident pods. I’m wondering that eventually will the resident pods learn or evolve to hunt like their cousin transients? If the decline in chinook and other types of salmon continue and I’m afraid they will they learn to adapt? Now that I don’t live on the island anymore I’m out of the loop! I had no idea that the transients were increasing and actually staying.

    • The Marine Detective

      Hello Chantelle, They are culturally bound to eat the different prey. Findings are that “residents” will not even eat sockeye and pinks in any significant numbers even when Chinook numbers are low.

  5. Rus

    I very much like the idea of honouring Mike Bigg, but I’m not so sure we’re ready to name a new species yet. The calculations done for the mitochondrial DNA genome analysis you mentioned used a measure of the rate of change (mutation rate) that was most likely an order of magnitude too slow. That would make the time of separation more like 70,000 years – a very short period in evolutionary time. Beyond that, there is evidence for ongoing gene flow between the different ecotypes in the North Pacific, and data from the whole killer whale nuclear genome suggests a population bottleneck shared in the Pacific and Atlantic about 20,000 years ago (see papers listed below). Ongoing (even if quite rare) mating and shared demographic histories should make us think twice about the degree of isolation between these populations. At the same time, there is no doubt that each of the regional populations of killer whales in the North Pacific (even those that share the same ecotype) is distinct enough to merit conservation measures to protect them.

    Moura, A.E., Janse van Rensburg, C., Pilot, M., Tehrani, A., Best, P.B., Thornton, M., Plon, S., de Bruyn P.J.N., Worley, K.C., Gibbs, R.A., Dahlheim, M.E. & Hoelzel, A.R. 2014. Killer Whale Nuclear Genome and mtDNA Reveals Widespread Population Bottleneck During the Last Glacial Maximum. Mol. Biol. Evol. 31, 1121-1131.

    Pilot, M., Dahlheim, M.E. & Hoelzel, A.R. 2010. Social cohesion among kin, gene flow without dispersal and the evolution of population genetic structure in the killer whale (Orcinus orca). J. Evol. Biol. 23:20-31

    Hoelzel, A.R., Hey, J., Dahlheim, M.E., Nicholson, C., Burkanov, V. & Black, N. 2007. Evolution of Population Structure in a Highly Social Top Predator, the Killer Whale. Mol. Biol. Evol. 24:1407–1415

    • The Marine Detective

      Hello Rus, Apologies that I am so late in “approving” your comment. The depth of your expertise is very much valued. I had not previously heard this critique of Morin et al. divergence time. While I know of the latter two papers, will educate myself with the first you list. Thank you.

  6. Kevin Dillabaugh

    His son Colin was my best friend for many years. We spent a number of times hanging out at his dads apartment, (and borrowing his car) Both such untimely passings. Great article! 🙂


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