The A23s – the Story of One Whale Family
Updated February 19, 2022
First published in 2016
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).
– Members of the Northern Resident population; ~310 whales (2019); threatened population.
– “Residents” do not stay in one area; they are inshore fish-eating Killer Whales / Orca. 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 (and a few families of resident type Orca in Alaska) have the culture of rubbing on smooth, stone beaches. Click here for more.
– In BC there are also Southern 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 Orca 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 Orca 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 Orca with distinct culture. We also sure didn’t have knowledge of their intelligence, long-lived family bonds, and limited numbers (all Orca 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).
Note that at least three family members were hunted down and captured; one is still in captivity (Corky has been there since December 1969); 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 Orca as individuals in 1973. It is not known how A27, A29 or A63 died.
The longest surviving Orca 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.
– 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 Orca. 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 Orca 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.
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 Orca 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. Forty-six 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.
The Orca 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 Orca being in captivity. There is federal legislation aimed at the protection of BC’s Orca populations and their habitat. They are not to be disturbed as per the Marine Mammal Regulations and further measures, 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 Orca 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 Orca 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 Orca when we act with ignorance, greed, and disconnect from nature.
What story will the next decades 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.
Update: January 2021 – The A23s were documented in the Broughton Archipelago for the first time in over 20 years and Midsummer had a new calf. While this matriline is very frequently sighted in the Johnstone Strait area, they had not been documented going into the nearby archipelago since 1995. There were concerns that this may have be due to the “acoustic harassment devices” that had been used at open net-pen salmon farms.
January 8, 2021 – CTV News – Orca pod returns to the Broughton Archipelago for first time in more than 20 years
Alexandra B. Morton, Helena K. Symonds, Displacement of Orcinus orca (L.) by high amplitude sound in British Columbia, Canada , ICES Journal of Marine Science, Volume 59, Issue 1, 2002, Pages 71–80, https://doi.org/10.1006/jmsc.2001.1136