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Posts tagged ‘killer whales’

Breath-Taking Beauty . . . Orca Resting Lines

Of all the Orca behaviours I have been privileged to see, it is when they are in “resting lines” that I most transported into awe. It makes so clear how socially bonded the whales are and how coordinated their behaviours can be.

Northern Residents the A12s in a resting line in 2007.

Science has determined that toothed whales like Orca do not sleep but only “rest”, shutting off one half of their brains at a time (scientifically known as “unihemispheric sleep”). They have to maintain this level of brain activity since they are voluntary breathers and must therefore consciously come to the surface to inhale and exhale.

Occasionally, Orca rest alone. They then float on the surface, motionless, blowhole exposed, “logging” for only a few minutes.

Far more often the Orca rest together, uniting in these very tight groups, fin to fin. This can happen at any time of day and I have witnessed resting line behaviour for up to 8 hours.

Northern Residents the A34s (A12s daughter and offspring) resting in 2017.

Once in resting line formation, the whales are usually silent (although there are a couple of matrilines that do occasionally vocalize) and move slowly forward, undertaking a remarkably synchronous and regular dive pattern. They often take short, shallow dives for around 2 minutes and then they all take a longer dive. When they resurface, their breaths are incredibly coordinated and their dorsal fins often line up perfectly.They are of course particularly susceptible to disturbance by boats when they are resting – both due to sound and proximity. 

“We are one” the behaviour seems to display and I certainly believe that this resting is also of great social and cultural importance to Orca.

At its most simple level though, a resting line of Orca is truly  . . . breath-taking beauty.

Photos below = resting line of members of the D, C, A5 and I15 matrilines in August 2020. All photos taken with a telephoto lens. 



Lessons Learned from Whales: Be a “Killer” Female

Three “disclaimers” before sharing one of the most valuable lessons I have learned from whales.
1) For the purposes of this blog, I am referencing the world’s biggest dolphin as both “Orca” and “Killer Whales”. Please know that “Orcinus orca” only camouflages our branding and past misunderstanding of the species as it roughly translates into “demon of the underworld”. Clearly the species did not name itself.

2) When referencing being a “killer” female it is as per this definition: Killer: adjective slang: highly effective; superior; cool; awesome; really badass. I do NOT want to playing into jokes about female rage, especially for those women going through menopause.

3) If you think you’ve read or heard similar content from me before, you’re right. I reference this lesson in presentations and I wrote a similar blog 10 years ago. I am reviving it for International Woman’s Day 2020. I am reviving it because this lesson is of even more value to me now that I am a decade older.

Now here goes . . .

The most valuable lessons I have learned about being female, I have learned from Killer Whales / Orca. For example, it is through my knowledge of these highly cultured whales that I know Nature’s plan for older females.

Let’s face it, human society does not generally help in this regard. As time etches lines into our interiors and exteriors, society does not tell us we are a-okay!  No, the general messaging is about loss, faded youth and endings. Firm up! Dye that hair! Want some Botox baby? We’re sweeping you aside, ‘cause you’re old!

Thank goodness I believe in Mother Nature.

One of my teachers – A12 aka “Scimitar”; born around 1941 and now passed away. She was a Northern Resident (inshore fish-eating) Orca who was the grand dame of the A12 matriline.

As I weather the physiological and psychological changes of age, I know there is purpose in all this. Humans and Killer Whales are among the very few animal species where females go through menopause; where they can live beyond their child-bearing years as “post-reproductive females”.

In the case of Killer Whale females, they can give birth between the ages of around 12 to 40 but can live to at least age 80 (life expectancy is not yet certain since Killer Whales have only been studied as individuals since 1973). Thereby, female Killer Whales may live almost twice as long as they have babies. On the face of it, this appears to violate one of Mama Nature’s great laws. That is: if you’re going to use our food, you better pass on our genes.

But Nature makes sense. Therefore, the role of post-reproductive females must be so valuable that it “justifies” their using the population’s resources.

Science in fact believes that the old female Killer Whales are the teachers and decision-makers. These grandmas, wizened by their years and the lessons of the generations before them, are believed to teach mothering skills; how and where to hunt; and they are known to share food, especially with their eldest son.

These activities would benefit the population by ensuring that the offspring are better able to survive and mate . . . passing on shared genes. Since first posting this blog a decade ago, there has been further science published on this. Please see those sources below.

The role of older, female Killer Whales has been acknowledged in science with the convention being that each family group of Killer Whales is named for the eldest female (e.g. the A12s). Also, the collective name for a family of Killer Whales is “matriline” which loosely translates into “follow your mother”.

Female Killer Whales have taught me that I am not less as I age but rather that there is teaching to be done and leadership to be embraced.

Never in the history of humankind have the females of our species had access to the resources we have now. It’s far from equality BUT imagine, imagine my sisters (and brothers) that if instead of being manipulated by a paradigm that is aimed at making us feel less, we chose to be more. Think of how we could unite against inequality in its many forms.

Instead of absorbing, and perpetuating, disempowering messaging about being older, imagine a world where older women rise into their potential. What a force that would be for the DNA of our kind – not distracted by what is not, but working for what will be.

These years are to be lived . . . as a killer female.

Another one of my teachers – A30 aka “Tsitika” with one of her sons, A39 “Pointer” in 1999.
©Jackie Hildering.

Photo by “Sealives” from 2018.

Me. Age 58. [Updated August 2021].

Where once I had rapid access to a brain full of facts, I now have intuition.

Where once I had 20/20 vision, the lenses of my eyes have become far less flexible. But, I see more.

Where once I was rubbed raw by society’s perceptions of success as a woman, I have (largely) found my way.

Where once I fought my body, I have healed into gratitude for its strength and health; the life it lets me live and how it is the manifestation of the DNA of those before me.

Where once I was unlined, I am weathered. The lines are getting deeper and more abundant, revealing that as I age, I laugh more – openly and loudly – and hide my emotions far less.

Where once I felt I had to prove I could do it all alone, a gift of age has been to reach out to younger generations. Their skills and values help me. My skills and values are aimed at being in service to them.

Where once I was constricted by messaging of being “too much” and wanting “too much”,  I recognize the power structures and motivations of those wanting to keep others small, so that they may feel big. I know what motivates inequality and injustice. I know. Thereby, I have power; the power to help those who have less.

Research on menopause in Killer Whales 

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 Pointer 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:


Extinction? Every individual’s name was known.

Upon hearing the quote above, the truth of it gutted me.

If we lose the endangered Southern Residents Orca, it will be the first time in human history that we let a population vanish having studied them for so long that each individual is known, most since their birth.

Currently at 75 whales, we know what has depleted the Southern Resident population. We know the current threats they face (and we know that these are synergistic). We know that the threats will be intensified due to a changing climate. We know enough to provide a life history on every individual that dies – their age, their lineage, their culture.

This captures so powerfully how we are participants in their demise. There is no surprise here. There is even acknowledgment by Canada’s National Energy Board of how precarious their survival is. In reviewing a proposed pipeline expansion they report: “Project-related marine shipping is likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects on the Southern resident killer whale”.

And yet the recommendation is, to proceed with the Project. 

Please take the time to reflect on this, to help share the reality but not to give in to despondency. Rather rise to a roaring “HELL NO”. NOT on our watch. NOT with our knowing.

I will say it again and again and again: the whales are barometers of our value systems and indicators of environmental health. How we treat them will ultimately be a measure of how we treat ourselves. 

We have to do better in understanding this and seeing the GAINS in weaning off fossil fuels, disposables, excessive consumerism and governments that wield fear and short-term economic arguments at the potential cost of . . . so much loss. 

Recognize the common solutions to socio-environmental problems, and apply your power as a consumer and as a voter.

Care more. Consume less. Vote for future generations. 

Thank you Alexandra Morton for this wisdom, shared on March 4th by Dr. Paul Spong of OrcaLab.

For better understanding of the plight of the Northern and Southern Residents, see the Recovery Strategy at this link. See Section 4 for Threats. There are many.

The main threats are recognized to be prey availability (in particular, Chinook Salmon), chemical and biological pollutants and physical and acoustic disturbance. These are synergistic i.e. if the whales do not have enough Chinook, the fat-soluble toxins (both historic and emerging) enter their systems impacting immunity and ability to reproduce. If the whales are stressed by acoustic and / or physical disturbance, this can impede their ability to hunt, to fight disease and to carry out other essential life processes like nursing and resting. 

For more detail on the National Energy Board decision I reference above, see my previous blog at this link. 

Photo: L-Pod in Blackfish Sound in 2009 ©Jackie Hildering. .

They Can’t Thrive If We Don’t Change.

[Dear folks, I anticipate some of you will have resistance to what I write below but I have to go there – not to bemoan problems, but in the desperate want for positive change.]

When will we get it? When?!

A science-based decision is made to extend critical habitat for the 74 endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales and what happens? Seventeen British Columbian coastal Chambers of Commerce “unite” in wanting to slow down potential further implementation measures claiming there has not been enough science done. The media release is here.

I understand the climate of uncertainty I really do when you have a Federal Government that wants a pipeline to go through and is being “assessed” on how it will impact the marine environment.

However, we cannot continue in the same way “defending” ourselves against potential fisheries closures and measures to reduce disturbance to the whales, claiming to love the whales and using them as a resource.

This is so difficult to articulate but you cannot keep on keeping on and expect things to change for the better, especially in a world that is undergoing climate change.

If we change we’ll lose jobs, jobs, jobs. Will we? What if we had a transition plan? What if we got ahead of the curve? What if we shed fear and entitlement and embraced precaution and human ingenuity, but not as an exit strategy? 

Pride and positive ownership can be taken in choosing for more modest takes of salmon i.e. leaving Chinook for the Orca, and in wildlife viewing that reduces stresses to the whales.

While we’re at it, let’s realize we are literally driving climate change and increased large vessel traffic on our coast through our excessive consumerism and demand for fossil fuels and our resistance to change, absence of understanding science, and being manipulated with fear.

Further, the idea that salmon enhancement is a panacea defies science, especially in light of climate change and the fact that we are releasing juvenile salmon into a gauntlet of open net-pen salmon farms (which indisputably amplify and transmit disease and parasites). Note too that salmon enhancement facilities are very often beholden to the open net salmon farming industry as funders. Oh what a web we weave . .

Precaution is not “let’s make sure we have done even more studies and then we’ll know for sure.” Precaution is the duty to prevent harm, even in the light of uncertainty and this involves urgency, not dragging our heals, gambling with the future.

When will we learn to draw a bigger temporal circle around our consideration of economy?

When will we truly recognize that the Orca are serving as indicators of environmental health and barometers of our value systems? The ultimate truth is that how we treat the whales will ultimately be how we treat ourselves, especially future generations.

We are all consumers and voters here. We are all empowered to influence change.

Photo: Member of the endangered Southern Residents in Blackfish Sound, ©Jackie Hildering.

In an effort to protect their communities, the Chambers of Alberni Valley, Bamfield, Campbell River, Chemainus & District, Comox Valley, Duncan-Cowichan, Ladysmith, Greater Nanaimo, Parksville & District, Port Hardy, Port McNeill & District, Port Renfrew, Qualicum Beach, Sooke, Tofino-Long Beach, Ucluelet and WestShore have united to form a coalition called Thriving Orcas, Thriving Coastal Communities . . .
As British Columbians who are now concerned about the survival of our own businesses and communities, we urge the federal government to slow down the implementation of any additional management measures, take the time to get the science right and engage coastal stakeholders,” said Ablack. “Potential restrictive management measures, such as a fin fish closure, that are based on faulty data and limited science could end up destroying our communities and do nothing to help the orcas. On the other hand, a carefully considered multi-faceted approach that includes deeper investments in restoration, enhancement, science and monitoring could ensure that orcas and coastal communities thrive* together as we have for generations.”

[*Note: The Orca are NOT thriving.]

Video re. August 1st, 2018 Orca / Boat Interaction Near Langdale

Recently, there have again been posts shared widely on social media promoting “encounters” where Orca are very close to boats.

My video compilations below about an August 1st incident are an attempt to counteract the effects of such promotions in their increasing pressure on the whales.

It is an attempt to educate, not to shame or vilify.

Those in the video appear to have acted in ignorance but there is the moral and ethical weight to know regulations and the repercussions of your actions, including when you put videos of such encounters into the world.  Sharing such imagery perpetuates ignorance around what is legal, rewards those who have undertaken such behaviours, and feeds the pressure to be “up close and personal”

Know that behaviours shown by the whales is associated with disturbance i.e. repeated tail-lobbing and the tail breaches / caudal peduncle throws.

The incident is under investigation by Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

For Marine Mammal Regulations, best practices and boater safety tips see Report incidents to 1-800-465-4336.

Part One

Part Two – shows the boat is in close proximity to the whales while at high speed.

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.


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

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

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:

What’s the Bigg’s Deal?!

Dr. Michael Bigg

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

Post from 2013. Updated December 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What's the Bigg's Deal.001.001


For more information:

What’s At Stake – Images Speaking Louder Than Words

Three minutes of images speaking louder than words . . .

This short slide show of my images testifies to the astonishing marine biodiversity of Northern Vancouver Island and what is put at risk with projects like the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project which would bring super-tanker traffic of toxic bitumen and condensate to B.C.’s fragile coast, and to the waters on which we depend for oxygen, food, buffering of climate change gases, aesthetics and so much more.

I have submitted this slide show for inclusion on “Hope, the Whale”, a 25′ whale sculpture being brought to the Vancouver Enbridge public hearings (January 14 to 18, 2013) “to symbolize the expansive and growing community of people with a vision of an oil-free coast in BC. The sculpture is designed to be a welcoming, collaborative, visual, interactive and peaceful approach to supporting a healthy environment. The whale will amplify our a collective messages of hope and a vision for a healthy ocean, water, land, communities, green economy, cultures and people.” See this link to contribute your message.

For more information, see my testimony to the Joint Review Panel included in my blog item “Super Natural or Super Tanker?” at this link.