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Posts from the ‘Killer Whale / Orca’ category

The A23s – the Story of One Whale Family

A43 "Ripple" of the A23 matriline. @2015 Jackie Hildering.

A43 “Ripple” of the A23s, August 22, 2015. @Jackie Hildering.

The A23 matriline of Northern Resident Killer Whales / Orca has been seen by thousands and thousands of people.

They are one of the families that most often chase salmon in the Johnstone Strait area (NE Vancouver Island) and therefore, have been observed and photographed by so many whale watchers and have been studied by researchers since the early 1970s.

They are also featured in the documentary “Realm of the Killer Whales” for which the PBS film crew, under special permit in 1997, was able to get remarkable footage of the A23s beach-rubbing in the Robson Bight (Michael Bigg) Ecological Reserve (see this link for underwater footage of beach-rubbing – as of timestamp 48:15).

A23 Matriline Quick Facts
Members of the N. Resident population; ~295 whales (end 2015); threatened population.
– “Residents” do not stay in one area; they are inshore fish-eating Killer Whales. Prefer salmon, especially Chinook. They often share their catches. 
– They stay with mother, siblings and offspring their whole lives.
– Mating can happen when different N. Resident matrilines come together but, ultimately, males leave with their family and females leave with theirs.
– Each matriline sounds different; aiding in determining degree of relatedness and avoiding inbreeding.
– Only the N. Residents have the culture of rubbing on smooth, stone beaches. Click here for more.
– In BC there are also S. Resident Killer Whales (endangered); and mammal-eating and offshore fish-eating populations (both threatened).
– Only the N. Residents have the culture of rubbing on smooth, stone beaches. Click here for more.
– See this link for more on the kinds of Killer Whale populations in BC.

So many human eyes have been cast upon them, but so few of us are aware of what this family has endured. This is the story of the A23s, and what one Killer Whale family’s history reveals about us.

Knowledge about the A23 matriline goes back to at least 1969 when we did not even know that there are different populations of Killer Whales with distinct culture. We also sure didn’t have knowledge of their intelligence, long-lived family bonds, and limited numbers (all Killer Whale populations in BC are at risk).

Here’s some sample text from around 1969 that gives a sense of who we were at the time:

  • From “Killer Whale!“, the 1963 book by Joseph J. Cook and William J. Wisner:
    • . . . the fiercest, most terrifying animal in all the world  . . . capable of attacking anything that swims, no matter how large. They are afraid of nothing, not even boats or ships.”
    • “The killer whale is well designed for a career of destruction and mayhem”.
    • “How different the orca, which seems to be filled with a burning hatred. Nothing that lives or moves in the water is safe from its assaults. It’s size, power, speed, agility and disposition have made this black monster feared wherever it is known.
  • And from 1973 US Navy diving manuals:
    • Killer Whales are “extremely ferocious” 
and will “attack human beings at every opportunity”.

Extremely ferocious? Terrifying? Monster? Designed for a career of destruction and mayhem?

Please see below for my summary of what the A23s are known to have endured since 1969 (based largely on the longterm population study by DFO’s Cetacean Research Program).

A23s story of one family www.TheMarineDetective.com

Summary of the known history of the A23 matriline. Click to enlarge.

Note that at least three family members were hunted down and captured; one is still in captivity (poor Corky’s been there for 46 years!); and two or three have been hit by boats. Further, it is very likely that family members were shot at and possibly killed but that this has not been documented because the late Dr. Michael Bigg only began his revolutionary work to study Killer Whales as individuals in 1973. It is not known how A27, A29 or A63 died.

Oh Corky! The longest surviving Killer Whale in captivity.
–  On December 11th, 1969 A23 “Stripe” and her calves, A21 and A16 “Corky”, were among 12 whales captured at Pender Harbour, BC. Six were released including A23 and A21 and six were retained to be sold to aquariums – this included “Corky”, desirable as a young female who might give birth in captivity.
– In 1977, she indeed was the first to conceive and give birth in captivity. She has been pregnant 7 times but none of her calves survived beyond 46 days.
– Corky is still in captivity today in San Diego, 46 years later.
– Read more about Corky from OrcaLab at this link (click “Corky Campaign” and then “Corky’s Story”).

There is a firsthand account of the 1973 ferry accident, which most likely involved A21, that provides insight into the bonds between Killer Whales. It is from Killer Whales  – The Natural History & Genealogy of Orcinus orca in British Columbia & Washington State by Dr. John Ford, Graeme Ellis and Kenneth Balcomb (1997): “The following is an account of a collision between a ship and a killer whale that demonstrates the persistence of the whales in helping one of their pod mates. It is drawn from a letter written by Captain D. Manuel of the M/V Comox Queen . . . the ship was en route from Comox to Powell River on 26 December 1973:   . . . .  It was a very sad scene to see. The cow and the bull cradled the injured calf between them to prevent it from turning upside-down. Occasionally the bull would lose its position and the calf would roll over on its side. When this occurred the slashes caused by our propellor were quite visible. The bull, when this happened, would make a tight circle, submerge, and rise slowly beside the calf, righting it . . . While this was going on the other calf stayed right behind the injured one . . . It appears the young whale did live for at least fifteen days. We later received a report from a resident of Powell River, who, on 10 January 1974, observed “two whales supporting a third one, preventing it from turning over.”

In having the great privilege of often seeing Killer Whales in the wild, it is so powerful to recognize a family like the A23s and be aware of what they have endured. Granted, some tragedy was accidental, but so much was the result of our ignorance and vilification.

The A23s from the Photo-identification Catalogue and Status of the 
Northern Resident Killer Whale Population in 2014. 
J.R. Towers, G.M. Ellis and J.K.B. Ford. Click to enlarge.

The A23 matriline from “Photo-identification Catalogue and Status of the 
Northern Resident Killer Whale Population in 2014”. 
J.R. Towers, G.M. Ellis and J.K.B. Ford. Click to enlarge.

But the story of the A23s also provides insight into how we have changed, now that knowledge has replaced fear and the fallacy of the “educational value” of Killer Whales being in captivity has been exposed as desire for commercial gain.

We’ve come a long way. As an indicator of this, on December 11th, 1969, members of the A23 matriline were being pursued and captured for captivity. Yesterday, 46 years later (January 14th, 2016), in the wilds of Johnstone Strait, the A23s (and A25s) were being studied by Jared Towers of the DFO Cetacean Research Program. Continuing the work pioneered by Dr. Bigg, he photo-documented them, took note of how the vessel-strike scars were healing (see photos below), and collected prey samples so that winter diet may be better understood.

A23s on November 9th, 2015. Photo: Jackie Hildering.

A23s on November 9th, 2015. Photo: Jackie Hildering.

The Killer Whales of British Columbia have been studied as individuals in this way longer than any other marine mammal. The knowledge gained has led to where we are now. For the most part, there is no social license/tolerance for Killer Whales being in captivity. There is federal legislation aimed at the protection of BC’s Killer Whale populations and their habitat. They are not to be disturbed as per the Be Whale Wise guidelines and there is global interest in them with evidence of this including the contribution whale watching makes to BC’s economy.

Now, the dominant perceptions are that Killer Whales are iconic; powerful symbols of all that is wild and free; and that it is remarkable, considering our complicated history with them, that there has never been a documented attack by a Killer Whale on a human in the wild. Many of us would agree that the descriptors “ferocious”, “terrifying”, “monster” and “designed for a career of destruction and mayhem” are better applied to humans than Killer Whales when we act with ignorance, greed, and disconnect from nature.

What story will the next 46 years tell – about us, about them?

I am so hopeful that we will better understand how our use of contaminants and fossil fuels impacts them, and the rest the marine ecosystem upon which human health also depends.

Thereby, there will be more positive stories for our future generations – and future generations of the A23 matriline.

 

A23 and A25 matrilines in Johnstone Strait, January 14, 2016. ©Jared Towers, DFO Cetacean Research Program.

A23 and A25 matrilines were in Johnstone Strait, January 13 and 14, 2016. Photo from August 26, 2015. From front to back: A60, A69, A109, A43, A61. Photo: Jared Towers, DFO Cetacean Research Program; taken with telephoto lens under research permit.

A60 vessel strike scarring

A95 vessel strike scars

 

 

 

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

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. For licensing / permission to use Chris Whilton’s video: Contact -licensing(at)jukinmediadotcom

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.

Markings in blue are mine. Source: Northern Resident Killer Whales of British Columbia: 
Photo-identification Catalogue and Population Status to 2010; G.M. Ellis, J.R. Towers, and J.K.B. Ford 



Markings in blue are mine. Source: Northern Resident Killer Whales of British Columbia: 
Photo-identification Catalogue and Population Status to 2010; G.M. Ellis, J.R. Towers, and J.K.B. Ford. Nicknames determined via the Wild Killer Whale Adoption Programme. 

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!   (For more information on the BC’s Killer Whale populations see this previous blog  or Dr. John Ford’s excellent new book 2015).

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 Feodor Pitcairn’s 2001 video “Realm of the Killer Whales” below, you can see underwater footage of the behaviour as of timestamp 48:15. This footage was obtained as a result of a special DFO permit.

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 February 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.

_________________________________

*Note: 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 dolphins.

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).

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.
  • Videos showing 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.

Video #1 showing 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 (human reaction is a little distracting). 

 

Look Up! Way Up! – “Hexacopter” soars high above killer whales to study their fitness

[Update summer 2016 – research team is now applying this technology to Humpback Whales – both photogrammetry and collecting blow samples. See here for video of the research.]

Whale researchers generally have some pretty lofty goals but the methodology being used to study the health of at-risk Killer Whales might have the highest standard of all – literally.

With Johnstone Strait being one of the most predictable and sheltered places to see Killer Whales, many of us seafarers on Northern Vancouver Island had a front row seat in seeing what was “up” with this research. A marine “hexacopter” was used, a drone with a camera mounted to it that soars 30m or more above the whales to obtain high quality video and photos that provide very valuable information about the whales’ fitness.

Ready for take-off: Olympus EPL2 camera mounted to the APH-22 marine hexacopter. Photo Hildering.

Ready for take-off: Olympus E-PL2 camera mounted to the APH-22 marine hexacopter. Photo Hildering.

Researchers Dr. Lance Barrett-Leonard, Head of the Cetacean Research Program at the Vancouver Aquarium, and Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach of United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were very generous in sharing information about their high-flying research with our community. (Are you getting tired of my clever puns referencing height yet?!)

Dr. Holly Fearnback releasing the helicopter. Dr. John Durban centre and Dr.Lance Barrett Leonard on the right. Photo: Hildering.

Dr. Holly Fearnbach releasing the helicopter. Dr. John Durban centre and Dr.Lance Barrett Leonard on the right. Photo: Hildering.

Photo by Suzanne Burns showing how benign this method of study is - the research boat is more than 100m away and the hexacopter with camera is 30 m or move above the whales.

Photo by Suzanne Burns showing how benign this method of study is – the research boat is +/- 100m away and the hexacopter with camera is 30m or move above the whales.

All Killer Whales in BC are all at risk (Threatened or Endangered) and by getting the images from on-high, it is possible to better determine if the whales are thin and even if they are pregnant. This provides vital data such as being able to know if pregnancies did not go to term and how much the fitness of “Resident” Killer Whales depreciates in years of low Chinook salmon abundance. “Resident” Killer Whales are inshore fish-eating populations culturally programmed to be “Chinook-aholics” and their survival has been proven to be directly correlated to the abundance of Chinook salmon.

Here are some examples of the data obtained via hexacopter, revealing good news and bad news.

The bad news first  . . .

When Killer Whales are in dire condition and lose too much fat, this manifests as “peanut head”, sunken areas near the eye patches. I see this as the equivalent as sunken cheeks in the gaunt faces of underweight humans.

A Killer Whale with "peanut head" where the extreme loss of fat around the head causes sunken areas in the whale's head = the equivalent of gaunt cheeks in underweight humans. Photo taken during presentation by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard, Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove's Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014. Photo: Jackie HIldering

A Killer Whale with “peanut head” where the extreme loss of fat around the head causes sunken areas in the whale’s head.  This is a photo of a slide from the presentation given by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard, Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014.

The images obtained with the hexacopter revealed that “Northern Resident” Killer Whales A37 and I63 were in extremely poor condition and, in fact, the whales disappeared from their matrilines (families) shortly after the images were taken. “Resident” Killer Whales stay with their families their entire lives so absence from the matriline most often means death.

The cause of death cannot be determined but know that when fat stores are get used up, manmade fat-soluble persistent organic pollutants (such as brominated fire retardants, PCBs, dioxins, etc) are released and affect the whale’s immune system. The mammal-eating Killer Whale of BC are known to be the most contaminated animals on earth.

In the presentation the research team provided in Telegraph Cove, I was gutted by the images of “Plumper” (A37 of the A36s) and I63 which showed concave eye patches and a tadpole-like body shape. The image of Plumper was contrasted to a healthy mature male Killer Whale (see below). As explained by Dr. Durban, Killer Whales when faced with fat loss, put water into the blubber layer so that they remain stream-lined. Plumper had lost so much fat, that it appeared he had to keep his pectoral fins extended to remain buoyant.  Ugh.

Image taken from the hexacopter revealing A37's very poor condition. He disappeared about 10 days after this photo was taken. A37 aka "Plumper" was one of the last 2 remaining whales in the A36 matriline of Northern "Resident" killer whales. He was 37 years old. The hexacopter study reveals that his brother A46 aka "Kaikash" is in good condition and he has been seen travelling with members of closely related matrilines. (Photo taken during the presentation by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard, Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove's Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014. Photo: Jackie Hildering)

Image taken from the hexacopter revealing A37’s very poor condition. He disappeared about 10 days after this photo was taken. A37 aka “Plumper” was one of the last 2 remaining whales in the A36 matriline of “Northern Resident” killer whales. He was 37 years old. The hexacopter study reveals that his brother A46 aka “Kaikash” is in good condition and he has been seen travelling with members of closely related matrilines. The above is a photo of a slide from the presentation by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard, Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014.

 

Image taken from the hexacopter revealing I63's very poor condition. She disappeared from her matriline about a week after this photo was taken (I15 matriline of Northern "Resident" killer whales). She was 24 years old. Photo taken during the presentation by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard, Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove's Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014. Photo: Jackie HIldering

Image revealing I63’s very poor condition. She disappeared from her matriline about a week after this photo was taken (I15 matriline of “Northern Resident” killer whales). She was 24 years old. The above is a photo of a slide from the  presentation by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard, Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014.

The good news . .  .

Data collected also revealed fat calves, robust nursing mothers, and pregnant females. Below, Dr. John Durban shares an image of 34-year-old “I4” of the I15 matriline of “Northern Residents” revealing that she is pregnant again.

Happy news! Photo taken from the hexacopter revealing reveals that I4 is pregnant. Photo taken during presentation by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard, Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove's Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014. Photo: Jackie HIldering

Happy news! Photo taken from the hexacopter revealing that I4 is pregnant again (she is the whale at the bottom of the image). With gestation being 17.5 months in killer whales and that, around the world killer whales give birth in the winter, I4 is likely about 1 year pregnant in this photo. Photo taken during presentation by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard, Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014. Photo: Hildering.

I am in no way advocating for the unregulated use of drones for viewing whales. The researchers reported that the regulatory paperwork needed to get approval for this research weighed more than the hexacopter did and that they were glad that this was the case.

This research methodology, when applied correctly, is a wonderful example of how advances in technology can lead to advances in knowledge in a way that is benign to wildlife. The sky’s the limit in how we let this knowledge impact our day-to-day actions to improve the health of the marine environment for which Killer Whales serve as powerful sentinels.

How high will you go for the sake of Killer Whales and what they are revealing about the health of our life-sustaining oceans?

 

Video taken with the Olympus EPL2 camera mounted to the APH-22 marine hexacopter. Note that the whales would not hear what you are hearing in this video as the camera is 30m or more above the whales. If video does not load go to http://tinyurl.com/pjz3hpf

Video taken with the Olympus EPL2 camera mounted to the APH-22 marine hexacopter. Note that the whales would not hear what you are hearing in this video as the camera is 30m or more above the whales. If video does not load go to http://tinyurl.com/pjz3hpf

Research methodology allowed for an assessment of the fitness of 77 "Northern Resident" Killer Whales (inshore fish-eaters) and 7 "Bigg's" Killer Whales (mammal-eaters aka "Transients"). Here, mature male mammal-eating killer whale T060s is being photographed from on high.

The hexacopter research allowed for an assessment of the fitness of 77 “Northern Resident” Killer Whales (inshore fish-eaters) and 7 “Bigg’s” Killer Whales (mammal-eaters aka “Transients”) by the research team during 2 weeks in August. Here, mature male mammal-eating killer whale T060C is being photographed from on high. Photo: Hildering.

Photo by Laurie Sagle showing how high the hexacopter is above the whales.

Photo by Laurie Sagle showing how high the hexacopter is above the whales.

The research team: Dr. Holly Fearnback; Dr. Lance Barrett-Leonard; and Dr. John Durban. Photo: Hildering.

The research team: Dr. Holly Fearnbach; Dr. Lance Barrett-Leonard; and Dr. John Durban. Photo: Hildering.

For more information:

Whale Watching – Not “Up-Close-and-Personal!” How to make a good choice?

This blog is catalyzed by several recent advertisements for whale watching that I consider to be extremely exploitive of whales, suggesting high adrenaline “up-close-and-personal” encounters.

The problem with such marketing, where boats are in very close proximity with whales, is threefold:

  1. It feeds consumer demand for a whale watching experience that is not good for the whales. Close boats (including kayaks) have greater potential for stressing whales; disturbing whales’ natural behaviour; and increasing habituation to vessels whereby risks such as vessel strike are increased. These potential effects have been proven through scientific peer-reviewed research (see references below).

    Pacific White-Sided Dolphins with new born calves. ©Jackie Hildering

    Pacific White-Sided Dolphins with newborn calves. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

  2. It creates false expectations and mis-educates people. There are Be Whale Wise guidelines for respectful and safe marine mammal viewing which include distance limits. However, if people see advertising promoting close interactions between boats and whales, they may believe this is what is to be expected on their tour. Thereby, companies who choose to use this marketing approach are creating increased pressure on whale watching boat operators to fulfill these expectations. There will be those who succumb to such pressure, and who will conduct their vessel in a way that violates the guidelines and thus creates greater disturbance for the animals. I solidly believe that the average consumer wishes to marvel at whales in the wild in a way that is as benign and natural as possible. Were they to know the potential impacts of close encounters or that the company they had chosen was “blurring” the guidelines, it would very much taint the experience for them.

    Pacific Habour Seal mother nursing her newborn. The pup is so young you can see his/her umbilical cord. ©Jackie Hildering

    Pacific Habour Seal mother nursing her newborn. The pup is so young you can see his/her umbilical cord. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

  3. It creates a “marketplace” where other companies with more solid ethics face the dilemma of how to counteract such advertising and aid consumers in making a better choice. Sometimes, unexpectedly whales do surface within the viewing distance limits but to promote this feeds the “get-up-close-and-personal” monster. There are areas on our Coast where whale watching operators have agreed not to show their boats in close proximity to whales in order to solve this dilemma and counteract the above two points as well.

    Resting line of the A12 matriline of "Northern Resident" orca (inshore fish-eating population). ©Jackie Hildering

    Resting line of the A12 matriline of “Northern Resident” orca (inshore fish-eating population). ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

Granted, we’ve come a long, long way baby.  Public attitude towards whales has changed drastically. We’re not shooting whales anymore and we’re not putting them in captivity. Whaling only ended in British Columbia in 1967 and the live capture of orca only ended in 1973/74 (thank you Dr. Michael Bigg).

Now, thankfully, our values and knowledge have largely evolved to where we respect whales as sentient, social, intelligent animals with culture.

So how to make a good choice? How to choose a whale watching experience that has the least impact on the environment with the greatest potential for learning and conservation?   How to navigate the sea of choice when confronted with the vast array of variables such as location, vessel type, crew, and advertising strategies?

Humpback Whales resting at the surface. ©Jackie Hildering

Humpback Whales resting at the surface. ©Jackie Hildering

The ideal would be to watch cetaceans from land with interpretation from a knowledgeable guide but there are very few places where whales pass by with predictability.

Going out in a private motorized vessel is also an option but most often means a larger noise and fossil fuel footprint per person and not having the many benefits of knowledgeable crew who can educate and operate the vessel in a way that is more benign. Data collected by the Cetus Research and Conservation Society supports that it is by far more often the case that recreational boaters violate the guidelines than do commercial whale watch operators.

See the little fin at the far left? That is "Cutter" (A86) as a calf in 2006 nursing mother  "Clio" (A50). Sibling "Bend" (A72) is the whale with the injured dorsal fin. Bend now has a calf of her own. A30 matriline of "Northern Resident" orca population (inshore fish- eaters) ©Jackie Hildering.

See the little fin at the far left? That is “Cutter” (A86) as a calf in 2006 nursing mother “Blinkhorn” (A54). Sibling “Bend” (A72) is the whale with the injured dorsal fin. Bend now has a calf of her own. A30 matriline of “Northern Resident” orca population (inshore fish- eaters) ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

Of course, it would help consumers and marine wildlife greatly if there were a effective system in place that guarded high standards of operation and that sufficient resources were made available for effective monitoring, education and enforcement of boaters around marine wildlife. But, we’ve not come far enough there yet. The only legal teeth to protect marine mammals is Section 7 of the federal Marine Mammal Regulations which “prohibits the disturbance of marine mammals by any person” without defining “disturbance”. Thankfully, there are some precedent setting legal cases now and charges under the Species at Risk Act have also been successful. However, we’re a long way away from ensuring repeat, flagrant offenders of the Be Whale Wise guidelines face justice.

There in fact appears to be a general absence of political will to protect marine mammals and the marine environment. A solid example of this is that the updated and comprehensive Amendments to the Marine Mammal Regulations have been drafted since 2004 but have never cleared the government process that would allow them to become law. They have in fact now been archived in the gazetting process.

Steller Sea Lions socializing at the haul-out. ©Jackie Hildering.

Steller Sea Lions socializing at the haul-out. ©Jackie Hildering.

So, here we go, my points for consideration in making a whale watching choice that is a better for the whales and environmental sustainability in general.

1. Location:

How close is the vessel departure point from the area where whales are likely to be i.e. how long and how fast will you need to travel? This affects how large your fossil fuel and noise footprint will be.

2. Crew:

How much successful experience and training and what qualifications does the crew have in:

  • Operating vessels around whales?
  • Providing science-based information that would make whale-watching count for the sake of inspiring greater conservation efforts rather than just be about opportunities for photography?
Mammal-eating orca T39 just having successfully killed a Pacific White-Sided Dolphin. Splash on the left is her calf just having entered the water before her. Splashes in the background, right in front of Telegraph Cove, are the dolphins that got away. ©Jackie Hildering

Mammal-eating orca T39 just having successfully killed a Pacific White-Sided Dolphin. Splash on the left is her calf just having entered the water, learning to hunt alongside her. Splashes in the background, right in front of Telegraph Cove, are the dolphins that got away. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

3. Vessel Related:

Does the vessel type allow for effective delivery of educational information?

How large is the vessel?  This is highly relevant in determining the noise and fossil fuel footprint per person as is the fuel efficiency of the vessel and the engine type.

4. Ethics and Approach:

Does the company:

  • Contribute to marine conservation and research efforts e.g. sightings data being relayed to research initiatives, financial or in-kind support, etc.
  • Have a holistic and comprehensive approach to environmental sustainability e.g. reduction of waste, use of organic, energy-efficient, and biodegradable products, etc?
  • Use language and images that are respectful of the marine wildlife and the guidelines for viewing them?

My life radically changed after going on just one whale-watching trip many years ago. I certainly know how profoundly transformative and powerful an experience it can be.

Pacific Harbour Seal about to give birth. ©Jackie Hildering

Pacific Harbour Seal about to give birth. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

When done right, ensuring guidelines are adhered to and solid conservation messaging is shared, whale-watching guests are able to have the best possible experience. An experience that is benign and respectful can lead to greater caring; a sense of connection to the animals and the life-sustaining ocean for which they are ambassadors; and the inspiration to undertake action that is better for the environment (and therefore, ourselves).

Consumers have very significant power to shape how whale watching is conducted. By supporting companies striving to operate in a way that is best for the whales and the environment at large, you are not feeding the “get-up-close-and-personal” monster. The resulting reward is to know that your experience will be as wild as can be – best for you, best for the whales and best in not rewarding those who compromise their ethics and the privilege of being a conduit for people to experience the raw beauty of seeing whales in the wild, where they belong.

So please, consider the above points and take particular notice of whale watching companies’ advertisements.  Choosing a company whose marketing reflects respectful whale watching is the first step to ensuring your experience will be as good as you want it to be.

Resting line of "Northern Resident" orca (inshore fish-eaters). ©Jackie Hildering

Resting line of “Northern Resident” orca (inshore fish-eaters). ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

Pacific Habour Seal resting at the surface. ©Jackie Hildering

Pacific Habour Seal resting at the surface. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

[If you witness an incident of concern regarding marine life, please call the DFO Incident Reporting Line at 1-800-465-4336.]


References:

Heart for Whales

Apologies for a longer absence here. It has been a full summer of marine research, education and inspiration.

I will have the joy of sharing much with you in the coming months.

For now – three remarkable images taken in the last months where the whales’ blows are heart-shaped.

With whales being ambassadors for marine ecosystems in so many ways, these images may be particularly engaging – suggesting that we should love the Oceans as if our lives depend on them because  . . . they do!

5-year-old humpback whale "Moonstar" (BCY0768) with heart-shaped blow. Threatened population © 2013 Jackie Hildering

September 2013 – 5-year-old humpback whale “Moonstar” (BCY0768) with heart-shaped blow. Threatened population. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Member of the I15 matriline of "northern resident" (inshore fish-eating) orca with heart-shaped blow. Threatened population. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

September 2013 – Member of the I15 matriline of “northern resident” (inshore fish-eating) orca with heart-shaped blow. Threatened population. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

October 2013 - Heart-shaped blow from humpback "Flash". © 2013 Jackie Hildering

October 2013 – Heart-shaped blow from humpback “Flash”. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Also to make your heart sing, see the clip below (or access it at this link). I was able to capture the vocals of northern residents AND humpbacks from one of the most mind-blowing days I have ever had the privilege of experiencing on the water. Enjoy!

[These images and video were previously shared on the TMD FaceBook page].

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).

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 ate 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). The population estimate for this threatened population is 300 individuals (2016) that are more often along coastal BC, with research ongoing regarding population numbers further off the coast (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 may be due to changes in the location and density of their prey. 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).
    • 2. The Northern “Residents” are a threatened population of some ~300 whales (2016) 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. Resdient 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 ~83 individuals (2016), 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 355 individuals (2015) and this too is a threatened population. Status report and further information here.

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.

_________________________________________________________

For more information:

What's the Bigg's Deal.001.001

Oh Deer! A rare meal for mammal-hunting killer whales?

Research of Dr. John Ford and Graeme Ellis on the diet of mammal-hunting killer whales in the Northeast Pacific Ocean. Source: Presentation "The Complicated Predator" by Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard; October 2005.

Research of Dr. John Ford and Graeme Ellis on the diet of mammal-hunting killer whales in the Northeast Pacific Ocean. Source: Presentation “The Complicated Predator” by Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard; October 2005.

This is not a tall tale. If anything it is a short tail as in – deer tail.

First an orientation on killer whale diet and how prey specialization has shaped distinct cultures over great expanses of time. 

Different populations or “ecotypes” of killer whales do not mate with one another because what works, for example, to chase salmon does not work to stalk seals.

The fish-eating killer whale ecotypes in the NE Pacific (“residents” and “offshores”) can afford to be extremely vocal because fish species often have poor hearing.

However, the mammal-hunting killer whales (“Bigg’s killer whales” previously know as “transients”) must generally live a life of stealth and unpredictability in order to successfully hunt their prey. To be vocal or be really surface active would have a high cost. It would be like ringing a dinner bell announcing “Hello, we’re here to eat you!”

In fact, recent research supports that the NE Pacific mammal-hunters diverged from the other ecotypes of killer whales some 700,000 years ago and puts forward that they should be recognized as a distinct species (Morin et al 2010).

Seals are predictable in where they haul out and they do not have defences like speed and sharp teeth. Therefore, it is not surprising that off the coast of British Columbia, Pacific harbour seals are documented to be the prey item of choice for the mammal-hunting killer whales (see graph above). 

Less commonly, these killer whales have also been documented to feed on river otters, elephant seals, sea otters and – an occasional terrestrial mammal like deer. 

Please see below for images of a deer carcass found underwater by fellow divers Gary Marcuse, Rob Roy and Mike Juren in May of 2012. There is no way of  knowing with certainty if that this deer was attacked by killer whales but it is plausible. Deer swim from island to island and are even more defenceless than a seal if they have the bad luck that stealthy mammal-eating killer whales find them. 

Deer-Underwater

Killer whales are big dolphins – smart and social and even though they tend to be very conservative, doing what has worked for their kind for 100,000s of years, they also play – learning from interacting with their environment. I have reflected on this previously in my blog where I observed them mouthing and hitting diving birds. (Read “Fins vs. Feathers” here). 

Deer could never make up a significant part of their diet but the killer whales would learn from such an attack. If this deer did indeed meet its end in the mouth of a killer whale, I would not be surprised if it was a juvenile mammal-hunting killer whale who undertook the “interaction”.  

To share the expertise of killer whale researchers supreme, Dr. John Ford ad Graeme Ellis, from their 1999 publication “Transients -Mammal-Hunting Killer Whales:  

“Although the primary prey of transient [now Bigg’s] killer whales are marine mammals, the whales’ interest extends to other warm-blooded animals, including marine birds .  . . and even terrestrial mammals. Our first record of land mammal predation dates from June 1961, when Canadian fishery officers observed killer whales feeding on a deer carcass in Jackson Pass on the central coast of British Columbia. Deer frequently swim from island to island along the inside passages, and it is probable that this one fell victim to a foraging group of transients. More recently, off the east coast of Vancouver Island, several killer whales were observed circling a small rock on which two deer had taken refuge. On another occasion, a lighthouse keeper assisted an exhausted deer out of the water as it was being pursued by killer whales. In these case, there has been no photographic confirmation that transients were involved, but it seems almost certainly the case.

Other land mammals are also of interest . .  on occasion . . . a killer whale was observed to surge part way onto shore in an apparent attempt to attack a dog that was barking loudly at the passing group.  . . .

One of the most surprising attacks on a terrestrial mammal took place in 1993 in Icy Strait, south-eastern Alaska. Two fishermen observed a group of three or four killer whales attack and kill one of a pair of moose that were swimming across the channel. The other moose managed to escape the attack but later became entangled in a kelp bed and drowned.”

So am I worried, as a very avid and very mammalian scuba diver, that I have the same chances of being attacked as a deer swimming between islands? Absolutely not. There has never been a case of killer whales in the wild killing a human. 

To again relate John Ford and Graeme Ellis’ expertise:

” Divers in this region typically wear thick suits made of neoprene rubber, which contains acoustically reflective nitrogen bubbles. Thus, if a transient [Bigg’s killer whale] tires to inspect a diver with echolocation, its unlikely to get a typical mammalian echo. Although scuba divers may not appear appetizing to [them], this may not be the case for swimmers, so it is advisabel to leave the water should transients [Bigg’s] appear in the vicinity.” 

I also love the perspective of a fellow diver and friend, Peter Mieras, who states that killer whales “are too smart to go after junk food in wrappers.” 

Oh deer! 


 

For more information on the different populations of killer whales in the North-eastern Pacific, see the BC Cetacean Sightings Network page by clicking here. 

Sources:

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:

 

Fins Verses Feathers – Transient Killer Whales Harass Rhinoceros Auklets

Transient killer whale grabs rhinoceros auklet. See slide show below. Photo: Hildering. All photos taken with telephoto and cropped.

From the evidence I deliver in the slideshow below, you’ll see that August 31st, 2011 was not a good day for some rhinoceros auklets (Cerorhinca monocerata) in Johnstone Strait, British Columbia, Canada. 

That day, I witnessed a very socially active group of “transient” (marine mammal-hunting) killer whales repeatedly harassing these birds – mouthing them and slapping them. At least 3  juvenile rhinoceros auklets had a bad day and, since these are diving birds, they cannot “alight” and escape the teeth and fins below them. Yet, I believe they survived.

I interpret the transient killer whales’ interaction with the birds to be “text book” play behaviour largely involving the juvenile killer whales. In this case, the text book is Dr. John Ford’s and Graeme Ellis’ Transients: Mammal-Hunting Killer Whales of British Columbia, Washington, and Southeastern Alaska. I provide their  expert interpretation of the behaviour below, entitled “Seabirds: Playthings and Practice, or Between-Seal Snacks?” 

Transient killer whale surfaces right beside rhinoceros auklet. See slideshow below. Photo: Hildering. All photos taken with telephoto lens and cropped.

“It is not unusual to see transients chasing and harassing seabirds. During most of these incidents, the whales do not seem intent on eating the birds. Rather, they let the bird escape or they abandon it after it has been injured or killed. Seabird harassment appears to be a favourite activity of juvenile transients. They young whales will sometimes swim upside down and on their sides, looking for birds paddling at the surface above. Once a victim is sighted, they will try to slap it with their tail flukes, jump on it, or seize it in their mouth. This interaction may continue for several minutes, before the bird is eaten, incapacitated, or left dead in the whale’s wake. We and others have recorded at least 10 seabird species that have become casualties of transients. Frequent victims are common murres, which are flightless for several weeks during the late summer and are like “sitting ducks” for transients.  Other species include black brant, common loon, white-winged scoter, surf scoter, cormorant (species uncertain), western grebe, marbled murrelet, rhinoceros aucklet, and red-breasted merganser.  Seabirds seem to be more important as objects of play or harassment than as a dietary item. Juveniles playing with seabirds no doubt learn useful skills in prey capture and handling that may enhance their success in hunting harbour seals and other wily prey.”  Source: Ford, J.K.B., and Ellis, G.M. 1999. Transients: Mammal-Hunting Killer Whales of British Columbia, Washington, and Southeastern Alaska. UBC Press, Vancouver, and U. of Washington Press, Seattle. 96 pp

Transient killer whale tail-slapping a rhinoceros auklet. See slideshow below. Photo: Hildering. All photos taken with telephoto lens and cropped.

I personally had never seen such a prolonged display of this transient killer whale play behaviour before. In fact, I had never seen transient killer whales socialize quite so rambunctiously!

 In the Northeast Pacific, “transient” killer whales (or “Bigg’s killer whales” – after the late Dr. Michael Bigg) are believed to have diverged from the “resident”  (inshore fish-eating) and “offshore” (offshore fish-eating) killer whales some 700,000 years ago (Morin et al, 2010), to refine a culture of stealth and unpredictability in order to hunt their marine mammal prey.

But clearly, when their bellies are full and social needs dominate, this type of killer whale is anything but stealthy. On August 31st, this incredibly socially active group of 20+ transients took about 1.5 hours to travel only +/- 4.5 km (2.5 nautical miles) – slapping birds, rolling over one another, tail slapping, vocalizing and breaching along the way. The whales would go on to bound past the community of Alert Bay, Cormorant Island. I have have previously written about this in the blog item “Might As Well Jump.” 

Jared Towers of the Department of Fisheries and Ocean has confirmed the IDs of the transient killer whales in the August 31, 2011 encounter to be:  T010s, T034s, T035s, T037s, T046Bs, and T146s.


Photos taken while on board with Orcella Expeditions. 

Additional source:

See “surplus killing” pp. 167 Barrett-Lennard, Lance. Heise, Kathy A. The Natural History and Ecology of Killer Whales – Whales and Whaling 

Might As Well Jump

When serving as a marine naturalist, one of the questions I am most often asked about whales is “Why do they jump?”

When whales jump it is called “breaching” and the answer to why they do it is not a simple one. Why whales do something depends on context; there is not just one trigger for breaching. This is no different than interpreting human behaviour. For example, if someone is tapping their foot, it could indicate irritation, having an itch, impatience or hearing a good tune!

The breaching of whales can be related to socializing, feeding, mating, communication and/or defence. Of course, when whale calves breach, it  is often related to “play” behaviour which leads to good brain development and coordination. Ultimately,  I believe that the high energy behaviour of breaching must somehow lead to a gain in food and/or increased success in passing on DNA.

Let me share two very specific and recent “cases” of breaching with you; one of which was witnessed by many residents of Alert Bay.

While out in our area with Orcella Expeditions last week, we saw an adult humpback whale breach some 30 times and also witnessed a mature male mammal-eating killer whale (“transient” or “Biggs killer whale”) breach within 30 meters of Alert Bay’s shoreline.

I have never seen anything quite like these two awe-inspiring events.

The humpback that breached so often was “KC” (BCY0291) who was born in 2002. Initially, I believe the breaching was triggered by the presence of highly vocal fish-eating killer whales (“residents”). Humpbacks do not have teeth with which to defend themselves  but they do have whale barnacle studded fins and a whole helluva lot of heft to throw around so even the mammal-eating type of killer whales very rarely interact with adult humpbacks.

My interpretation is that KC was not habituated to the killer whale dialect he heard that day (I15 and I31 calls) and was making sure he made clear “do NOT mess with me!”. He was posturing to the killer whales. After his killer whale encounter,  he turned around and came upon another humpback whale and again started breaching and making very forceful exhalations called “trumpeting”. Was this communication to the other whale about the presence of the killer whales?  Was it related to a dominance display that may have to do with mating?  I may never know for sure but it is very interesting that KC’s incredible bout of breaching seemed to lead to other humpbacks breaching as well.

Humpback whale, 'KC" on August 30th, 2011. One of the some 30 times he breached in less than 2 hours. Photo: Hildering

And then . .  there was the mind-blowing, highly witnessed breaching of the 27 year-old killer whale “Siwash” (aka T10B ) in front of Alert Bay. Siwash was travelling with a group of 20+ other mammal-eating killer whales. As mammal-eaters, this type of killer whale has to be stealthy and unpredictable and therefore, they are most often far less vocal and surface active than the fish-eating killer whales. This certainly wasn’t the case as they bounded past Alert Bay last Wednesday evening! They were swimming on their backs; fin slapping and travelling right past the shore; calves were “cat and mousing” small diving birds – whacking them around; and there were even male sex organs to be seen at the surface!

What was going on?  Let me state the obvious – they were socializing. Their bellies must have been full enough to allow them to throw stealth to the wind. These particular whales would most often not travel together so the socializing might even be related to mating.

But ultimately . . . in trying to understand the behaviour of these sentient beings, we have to have the humility to accept that we  may only ever have hypotheses for why they do what they do. It is the stuff of awe and wonder that the mighty Max̱’inux̱ were so visible to the very people that have such a strong cultural connection to them, as they swam by Alert Bay  . . . . “Home of the Killer Whale.” 

Mature male mammal-eating killer whale "Siwash" breaching in front of Alert Bay on August 31, 2011. Photo: Hildering.