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Whales that Were

Whales that  . . . were.

I stumbled across this photo today and it made me take pause.

It dates back to 2009 and is of members of the threatened population of Northern Residents – mother Tsitika (A30, born ~1947) and one of her sons, Pointer (A39, born 1975). Both whales are now dead.

 

Tsitika died in 2013 and Plumper died in 2014. It’s known that they are dead because inshore fish-eating populations of Orca (known as the Northern and Southern “Residents”) stay with their families (matrilines) their entire lives. So, when truly missing from their family, they are known to be dead. (There are two notable exceptions – the calves Springer and Luna). The daughters do sometimes split off with their offspring and this appears to be related to availability of Chinook i.e. reduced prey availability appears to be a catalyst for matriline splitting (Stredulinsky, 2016).

Below is a photo of my beat-up old catalogue showing the A30 family composition back in 1999. This version of the ID catalogue was by Dr. John Ford, Graeme Ellis and Ken Balcomb who continued the work begun by the late Dr. Michael Bigg in 1973 to study Orca as individuals. That work continues to this day, whereby the Orca off the coast of British Columbia have been studied as individuals longer than any other whale populations.

My having the privilege to learn from Orca began in 1999 as a naturalist, and so much was learned from the A30s.

 

I share the image of the tattered page to give a sense of how often I used this resource because this family was so frequently in the Johnstone Strait area – A30, her sons, daughters and grand-calves – always together. They are “the A30s”.

The families are named for the eldest female*. Orca females can live well beyond their reproductive years e.g. A30 lived to approximately age 64 but she was only reproductive to age ~40.  It is believed the post-reproductive females are the teachers and decision-makers and hence, this is why the families are named for them. The rationale is that, if females live longer than they can have babies (thereby no longer directly contributing to the bank of their family’s DNA), they must be doing something so important that they are indirectly benefitting the DNA of their kin e.g. teaching mothering skills and how and where to hunt. They also share food with their family. These activities would be of benefit by ensuring that the offspring are better able to survive and mate, thereby passing on the family’s genes.

Mothers sharing food with their sons in particular would enhance the chances of the family’s DNA getting passed on i.e. big, strong boys might have more luck with the ladies (Wright et al, 2016).

The sons’ reliance on their mothers appears to be so strong, that research has found that they have a greater chance of dying if their mother dies. From Foster, 2012: “For a male whale over 30, a mother’s death meant he was 14 times more likely to die within the year. For his female counterparts, a mother’s death only boosted the risk of death by just under three-fold. And daughters under 30 saw no change to their survival rate when they lost their moms.”

Indeed, Pointer died within the year after Tsitika died. His older brother Blackney (A38) died ~4 years after she died. Big brother “Strider” had already gone missing in 1999.

 

Mother and son, Tsitika and Pointer in 1999. ©Jackie Hildering. 

 

What made me take pause today however was not this science, at least not directly.

That image of mother of son, of Tsitika and Pointer, so often side-by-side for those many years, it triggered in me the knowledge that it is through these whales that I have come to a much deeper understanding of the interconnectedness and fragility of this coast. It has been pivotal in how I live my life and essential in my evolution into becoming a Humpback researcher.

Through the extraordinary privilege of learning to recognize whales as individuals, I have broken free of thinking of whales as populations; as numbers of animals. Whales are not randomly moving / blundering along our coast. Their culture has been passed on through generations.

A30’s ancestors would have pursued the same runs of salmon (and rubbed on the rocks of the same beaches). Let me emphasize this. The same lineages of Orca have been following the same runs of salmon spawning in the rivers of their birth . . . generation . . . upon generation . . . upon generation . . . upon generation.

A30 came here as a calf with her mother, A2 (Nicola). Her daughters A50 (Clio) and A54 (Blinkhorn) continue to come into the area with their offspring and grand-offspring, in search of salmon (with their greatest reliance being on Chinook). Once the salmon have spawned, they are far less likely to be in the area.

A30 and A34 matrilines near the Bere Point rubbing beaches in 2016. In the foreground, Cedar (A75, born in 2002). She is A30’s granddaughter and a mother herself. ©Jackie Hildering. 

 

I have come to better understand the longevity of these lineages. Not all rivers are the same to salmon. Not all salmon are the same to Orca. And not all Orca should be perceived to be the same by we humans.

Too many of us don’t even know that there are different kinds of Orca off our coast with different diets, languages, histories and relationships. All are at risk and no, they really will not mate with one another nor will they switch their diet (see below for information on the four BC Orca populations).

Too many of our children know more about kangaroos and elephants than they do about the whales off our shores.

This absence of knowledge is very problematic – for the whales and for the ecosystem upon which our lives also depend. One of the most powerful lessons learned from Orca is how very wrong we can be (having vilified them, presumed them to be abundant, shot at them, put them into captivity, etc) BUT how quickly we can change when knowledge replaces fear.

We could learn so much about our sense of place through the whales’ sense of place.

We would do so much better by respecting those whose lineages and cultures date back 1000s of years.

And, understanding the whales of the past, would certainly help us with our futures.

 

*The A30 matriline is now comprised of sisters A50 and A54, their offspring and grand-offspring. Note that the matriline is still referenced as “the A30s” because there are two surviving daughters. Were a mother to die and there was only one surviving daughter and her offspring, the matriline would then be named for that daughter e.g. the A12s are now the A34s. See this link. But when there is more than one surviving daughter; only surviving sons; or son(s) and daughters(s), the matriline retains the name of the deceased mother. (Clear as mud right? 🙂 ) Source: BC Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program.

 


Northern “Resident” Quick Facts:

  • N. Resident population; ~302 whales (2018); threatened population.
  • There are 4 populations of Killer Whales / Orca off the coast of British Columbia. They do not mate with one another, having distinct cultures.
  • In addition to the N. Residents, the other 3 populations of Orca off the coast of British Columbia are the “Southern Residents” (also inshore fish-eaters; endangered population of 73 whales, August 2019); mammal-eating Bigg’s Killer Whales (aka Transients, threatened population) and offshore fish-eating “Offshores” (threatened population whose diet includes sharks).
  • “Resident” type Orca do not stay in one area as the name suggests. They are inshore fish-eating Orca. They are highly reliant on salmon, especially Chinook. Thereby, matrilines are more predictably sighted when salmon are spawning i.e. predictable salmon returning to the rivers of their birth = predictable predators following them.
  • Residents stay with their mothers, siblings and offspring their whole lives. The families are known as matrilines. They share their catches.
  • Mating happens when different N. Resident matrilines come together IF they are not closely related. Each matriline of N. Residents sounds different; aiding in determining degree of relatedness and avoiding inbreeding. Ultimately, males leave with their family and females leave with theirs. The calves are of course raised by their mothers who nurse them. Nobody leaves to mate.
  • Only the N. Residents (and a few families of resident type Orca in Alaska) have the culture of rubbing on smooth, stone beaches. Click here for video and information on beach-rubbing.

Please see previous blogs for further detail:


Sources:

10 Responses to “Whales that Were”

  1. Mike Robinson

    Thank you for sharing this amazing report on the Orcas. I am deeply touched by their caring behavior
    towards members of their family.

    Reply
  2. Candis Hatzis

    Moving article. Yes, these beings are worth saving & change we must.
    Thank you for, again, generously sharing your wisdom & compassion.
    Love your Orca articles.

    Reply
  3. Beth

    Passing this on to some teacher friends. Yes, even kids in Ontario need to know these facts. Thanks so much.
    Beth

    Reply
  4. Wendy Whyte

    Love the article Jackie, thank you for sharing it and fingers crossed that all 4 populations continue to survive.

    Reply
      • Wendy Whyte

        Still travelling and whale watching. Still attending concerts and listening to music (the fantastic “Western Stars” by Bruce Springsteen as I type,) Still “Memories not regrets”. Such fond memories of our time on Vancouver Island.

      • The Marine Detective

        So great to know how the beat very much goes on Wendy and to have this connection to you. Now also going to listed to Western Stars. 🙂

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