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.
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.
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.
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.
*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).
See the BBC’s “Ingenious Animals” for interview with yours truly re. Beach rubbing with compilation of video of multiple incidents of Northern Resident matrilines undertaking this behaviour. Available at this link as of 41 min.