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Rub Me Right – “Beach-Rubbing” Behaviour of Northern Resident Orca

[Update September 2020: Click here for OrcaLab’s live cameras and video highlights of Northern Resident Orca rubbing at the Strider Beach in the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve, NE Vancouver Island.]

Likely you’ve seen it – Chris Wilton’s video of Killer Whales* / Orca rubbing on a beach in the Discovery Islands on January 29th, 2015, the whales only within ~1.5 metres of the incredibly fortunate humans’ feet?

[Video used with permission. For licensing / permission to use: Contact – licensing(at)jukinmediadotcom]

I became a resource to the news for interpreting the whales’ behaviour in this video as a result of my posting their IDs and commenting on the behaviour on social media. However, it proved difficult to extinguish some misinterpretation and misinformation, for example, the notion that the behaviour captured in the video was rare e.g. “B.C. orcas’ rare beach-rubbing behaviour caught on video” (CBC News. January 31, 2015).

It’s not rare behaviour at all. It is rare that people get to see it.

Big difference!

That’s what has motivated me to write this blog but before I proceed let me qualify that while I have spent a lot of time staring at Killer Whales through binoculars, I am a Humpback Whale researcher and marine educator. Everything that is known about Killer Whales is due to the long-term population study by DFO’s Cetacean Research Program. It began in 1973 with the late, great Dr. Michael Bigg and as a result, the Killer Whales of British Columbia have been studied as individuals longer than any other marine mammals in the world.

Thanks to the Cetacean Research Program’s work, identifying the whales in Chris’ video was easy. I recognized that they were beach-rubbing and, therefore, they had to be members of the threatened Northern Resident population. “Resident” Killer Whales are inshore, fish-eaters who can best be described as “Chinook-aholics”. The Northern Residents are the only Killer Whales of BC’s four distinct populations that rub on smooth pebble beaches.

When the video was brought to my attention, I was with two fellow Humpback Whale researcher friends, and we laughed aloud at about 1:56 in the video because there was mature male A66 (“Surf”), almost stationary on the beach. His left side was facing Chris’ camera, making it so easy to see his distinct saddle patch and the nick in his dorsal fin. It simply could not have been easier to identify him.

Screen grab from Chris Wilton's video showing why it was so easy to identify A66 / Surf. Used with permission. For licensing / permission to use: Contact -licensing(at)jukinmediadotcom

Screen grab from Chris Wilton’s video showing why it was so easy to identify A66 / Surf. Used with permission.

Ah ha! If Surf was there, his mother and three siblings had to be there too for such is the way of “Resident” Killer Whales; they stay with their mothers for their entire lives, seldom separated by more than a short distance. If the mother dies, the remaining family members stay together. Northern Resident families are in fact named for the eldest female who is believed to be the leader, A42 in this case, and the families are known as “matrilines”. This term loosely translates into “follow your mother”.

Upon viewing the rest of the video, we could confirm that all five member of the A42 matriline were indeed there. Surf was with his mother, Sonora, and her three other offspring.

Updated: Shows the A42 matriline in 2019. Source: Towers, J.R., Pilkington, J.F., Gisborne, B., Wright, B.M., Ellis, G.M., Ford, J.K.B., and Doniol-Valcroze, T. 2020. Photo-identification catalogue and status of the northern resident killer whale population in 2019. Can. Tech. Rep. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 3371: iv + 69 p.


So what’s with the beach-rubbing?

Absolutely essential to understanding this behaviour is to know that the Killer Whales of the world have culture. Like humans, they have specialized to make use of certain prey and the geography of their area e.g. specializing in eating salmon vs. marine mammals.

In BC, the four Killer Whale populations (Northern Resident; Southern Resident; Offshore; and Bigg’s / Transients), overlap in their ranges but the populations have different languages and do NOT mate with one another. Thereby, they preserve the culture and traditions of their populations. To emphasize just how long-lived these cultural differences and specializations are, know that the mammal-hunting Bigg’s / Transients diverged from the other kinds of Killer Whales 700,000 years ago!

As mentioned, throughout the Northern Resident Killer Whales there is the culture of skidding their bodies over sloping beaches of smooth pebbles. None of the Killer Whale populations with which they have overlapping range in British Columbia have this behaviour. (Note: The AK Pod of Alaskan Residents is also known to beach rub. Please see detail at the end of the blog). As you can see in Chris’ video, in order to get down low and in contact with the rocks, they often super-deflate their lungs to reduce buoyancy, releasing a gush of bubbles. They rub all parts of their bodies. Sometimes they do this for a few minutes, and sometimes for more than an hour.

In OrcaLab’s video below, you can see underwater footage of the behaviour. Video was taken with remote underwater cameras under permit from Fisheries and Ocean’s Canada.

The behaviour can’t be about rubbing off parasites! The skin of Killer Whales sloughs off like ours does and therefore there’s no “fouling” of barnacles like there is on Humpbacks and Grey Whales. And hey, if it was due to ectoparasites, the other Killer Whales in BC would have them and be beach-rubbing too!

Beach-rubbing by the Northern Residents must be a social and recreational behaviour. A whale massage? Certainly it must feel good. Maybe, as an additional benefit, doing something you enjoy together also further solidifies family bonds (social cohesion being needed for community maintenance)? Reportedly, the vocals sometimes made by the Northern Residents while beach-rubbing support that this is a social behaviour since they are the same “looney tunes” made when Northern Resident families reunite.

Again, it is not rare for the Northern Residents to beach-rub at all. It is a regular social behaviour. What’s quite rare is that there were humans present on a beach when the behaviour was happening since where the whales most often are known to rub is a no-go zone.

These best known rubbing beaches are on NE Vancouver Island, in the Michael Bigg Ecological Reserve at Robson Bight in Johnstone Strait. The Northern Resident matrilines that most often feed in this area use these beaches to rub with incredible regularity, including the A42s – the whales that Chris videoed beach-rubbing much further to the south, around central Vancouver Island. These Robson Bight beaches are within recognized critical habitat for this population and are fully protected. The waters around these beaches are a restricted area as well.

But Northern Resident rubbing beaches are found all along our Coast and I believe that individual families have preferences, places they have been rubbing generation after generation after generation. There are Northern Resident families that rarely come into Johnstone Strait and they must have their equivalent of a Robson Bight somewhere else on our coast.

As confirmed by Dr. John Ford, head of DFO’s Cetacean Research Program, the Strait of Georgia where Chris got the video has been known to be part of the range of the closely related families to which the A42s belong (the A5s) since the 1960s and likely for many, many years further back. However, at that time, we would not have been collecting the data.

In 1961, near to where the video was taken, a 50-calibre machine gun was positioned for the purposes of executing Killer Whales and, as of 1964, it became common to attempt to capture them for captivity.

Just 55 years later, in January 2015, Chris and others stood on a beach in the Discovery Islands marvelling at what they were witnessing, recognizing their good luck to see this wild behaviour, and being able to record it in the video that has now gone viral.

Thank goodness that we have this capacity for positive change and that it’s now NOT rare that people feel a strong concern for and connection to Killer Whales.  I believe that the wide reach of Chris’ video has led to raised awareness about how cultured and social Killer Whales are and how lucky we are to have them as our marine neighbours. Maybe that awareness will be reflected in further changes that benefit the whales and the marine ecosystem for which they are ambassadors?

Then we’d be rubbing the right way and have more reasons to bubble with happiness.

Northern Residents using a rubbing beach on Malcolm Island off NE Vancouver Island. For more information on these beaches see Friends of the Wild Side.

Northern Residents using a rubbing beach on Malcolm Island off NE Vancouver Island. For more information on these beaches see Friends of the Wild Side.


Additional Videos of Beach-Rubbing of Northern Residents:

Video 2021 of the A42s rubbing near Sechelt

Video 2015  by – beach rubbing by A42s near Powell River.

Video January 27, 2018 by Sasha Koftinoff – beach rubbing by A42s near Sechelt.

Video January 27, 2018 by Martin Michael – beach rubbing by A42s + other Northern Residents near Sechelt.

Video January 27, 2018 by Bruce Robinson – beach rubbing by A42s + other Northern Residents near Sechelt.

Video – Feodor Pitcairn’s 2001  “Realm of the Killer Whales” with underwater footage of the beach-rubbing as of timestamp 48:15. This footage was obtained as a result of a special DFO permit.

Notes and Sources:
*Scientific convention is to reference Orcinus orca as Killer Whales. Many prefer “Orca” but please know that Orcinus orca loosely translates into “demon of the underworld”. The whales did not name themselves, we did and locked within the names is our misunderstanding and complex history with these remarkable, social, intelligent, big dolphin.

For more information on the BC’s Killer Whale populations see this previous blog  or Dr. John Ford’s book Marine Mammals of British Columbia, 2015.

For more footage from the OrcaLab cameras and hydrophones from NE Vancouver Island click hereYou can sign-up for text alerts by scrolling down at that link and filling in the field on the bottom left.

For potential impact of boat presence on rubbing behaviour, see Estimating relative energetic costs of human disturbance to killer whales (Orcinus orca). Rob Williams, David Lusseauc, Philip S. Hammonda (2006).

This blog led to my being interviewed for BBC’s “Ingenious Animals”. The episode includes a compilation of video of Northern Resident matrilines beach-rubbing. Available at this link as of 41 min.

Information on Beach-Rubbing in Alaskan Residents:

  • Members of AK pod are known to beach rub using “several different rubbing locations in Prince William Sound as well as in Kenai Fjords and Resurrection Bay.” Source: North Gulf Oceanic Society.
  • Alaskan Residents’ range overlaps with that of the Northern Residents, especially in Frederick Sound. It is unknown how often the Northern Residents and the AK pod of Alaskan Residents do or do not overlap in their ranges.
  • Video below shows beach-rubbing in what is very likely Alaskan Residents (members of AK pod) by Eric Eberspeaker – August 2015; Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge on the shore of Fox Island. You’ll note there are some very unique human vocals resulting from witnessing the beach rubbing.


13 Responses to “Rub Me Right – “Beach-Rubbing” Behaviour of Northern Resident Orca”

  1. Curt Bovee

    Thank YOU ALL !! Absolutely fascinating.. I see the Atlantic from my place in Maine. But
    No Orcas. Daggumit anyway. Peace and Love. Please keep on keeping on.

    • Jill Fidler

      Watching from Victoria, Australia where we are “enjoying”? a heatwave…..I am familiar with the area as my sister lives at Gibsons….thanks so much for the wonderful footage….

    • The Marine Detective

      Hello Sylvia. You’ll note that the one video in the blog is from one of OrcaLab’s cameras. Note though that this is not mother, father and calf. This is not how how the social structure of “Resident” Orca works. Have a look at the matriline / family tree in the blog to see that Surf (the mature male) is a son, brother and uncle but NOT a father to any of the whales with which he is travelling.

  2. kineticarts

    So, a friends FB feed led me here to read your post. Something about the way that big finned mammal got so close to the part of the world we bipeds dominate just pulled my curiosity. Thanks for doing, and particularly sharing, the research into their behavior with us. I hope the world at large does a good job of providing for your happiness as you explore and share existence for our collective edification.

    I feel that everything existing is part of the same thing. I’m not a scientist, I chose construction as my gift to develop and share with the world. But I love curious minds and while I have hours every day watching my hands do the same old thing they’ve done so many times before, I’ve developed the habit of postulating things. Or being an opinionated butthead if you prefer. 🙂 I prefer to think I’m playing with possibilities.

    Initially, in the FB video I saw a mammal, built differently than us, lazily cruising along the edge of it’s known world. Close enough to shore that it could experience both the sustaining air above it’s usual world AND the earth beneath it’s world. Neither of which he could directly experience with the constraints placed on him by having been born into a body best suited to living in the ocean.

    Anyway, I thought I recognized in the creature a lazy, offhand curiosity of what laid beyond the border of his known world and wondered if I might not be seeing an explorer’s nature, thinking of some way it could go beyond that border to learn what else there was. Perhaps curiosity is an evolutionary trait that has guided living things beyond the simple quest for sustenance. Perhaps it was curiosity that
    developed flippers into feet! Maybe evolution didn’t just accidentally happen, it was the result of life’s desire! Or maybe I’m just projecting. Who knows?

    You sound educated. Did your course of study ever offer an opinion as to how far that collective thought had gotten toward actually thinking they knew what motivated the creature’s desire to be in the three worlds at once? What is the current level of hubris in the educational community?

    How much time has your mind spent trying to figure out how to fund your research into how to devise a test to determine what the motivations of this alien species is?

    Sorry if this comes across as anything other than a request for more of your offered knowledge, I’m just interested in things and want to thank you for taking the time to put it out here for the rest of us.

    • The Marine Detective

      Hello Kinetic Arts- Your comments and questions make me believe we would have very interesting conversations. Forgive me however, that I have limited opportunity to reply now. What you share is thought provoking of course and, while not wanting to force it into a box, I perceive to be in the realm of ontology. I believe I can best invest my efforts into attempting to generate respect for other organisms without making it all about us; to try to generate connection and wonder without it feeding the kind of spirituality that puts we humans at the epicentre of the universe. This is an insufficient answer but, hopefully, along with the other content and efforts of “The Marine Detective”, gives a sense of what I have to focus on.

  3. kineticarts

    By the way… Congratulations on having come up with the “Rub Me Right” title. It works and shows a knowledge of your intended audiences desires. 🙂


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