Whales that . . . were.
I stumbled across this photo today and it made me take pause.
It dates back to 2009 and is of members of the threatened population of Northern Residents – mother Tsitika (A30, born ~1947) and one of her sons, Pointer (A39, born 1975). Both whales are now dead.
Tsitika died in 2013 and Plumper died in 2014. It’s known that they are dead because inshore fish-eating populations of Orca (known as the Northern and Southern “Residents”) stay with their families (matrilines) their entire lives. So, when truly missing from their family, they are known to be dead. (There are two notable exceptions – the calves Springer and Luna). The daughters do sometimes split off with their offspring and this appears to be related to availability of Chinook i.e. reduced prey availability appears to be a catalyst for matriline splitting (Stredulinsky, 2016).
Below is a photo of my beat-up old catalogue showing the A30 family composition back in 1999. This version of the ID catalogue was by Dr. John Ford, Graeme Ellis and Ken Balcomb who continued the work begun by the late Dr. Michael Bigg in 1973 to study Orca as individuals. That work continues to this day, whereby the Orca off the coast of British Columbia have been studied as individuals longer than any other whale populations.
My having the privilege to learn from Orca began in 1999 as a naturalist, and so much was learned from the A30s.
I share the image of the tattered page to give a sense of how often I used this resource because this family was so often 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. The eldest brother “Strider” had already gone missing in 1999.
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.
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. 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 salmon). Once the salmon have spawned, they are far less likely to be in the area.
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, and relationships. All are at risk and no, they really will not mate with one another nor will they switch their diet.
Too many of our children know more about kangaroos and elephants than they do about the whales off our shores.
We could learn so much about our sense of place through the whales’ sense of place.
We would do better by respecting those whose lineages and cultures date back 1000s of years.
And, understanding the whales of the past, would help us with our futures.
Northern “Resident” Quick Facts
- N. Resident population; ~302 whales (end 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.
- “Residents” 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.
- 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 76 whales, May 2019); mammal-eating Bigg’s Killer Whales (aka Transients, threatened population) and offshore fish-eating “Offshores” (threatened population).
- 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.
More information / sources:
- BC Killer Whale Adoption Program – A30 matriline
- BC Killer Whales (background on the different ecotypes / populations of Killer Whales off the coast of British Columbia)
- Ford, John K.B., Graeme M. Ellis, and Kenneth C. Balcomb. 2000. Killer Whales: A Study of their Identification, Genealogy, and Natural History in British Columbia and Washington State. Second edition. Vancouver: UBC Press.
- Ford, J.K.B., Pilkington, J.F., Reira, A., Otsuki, M., Gisborne, B., Abernethy, R.M., Stredulinsky, E.H., Towers, J.R., and Ellis, G.M. 2017. Habitats of Special Importance to Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) off the West Coast of Canada. DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Res. Doc. 2017/035. viii + 57 p.
- Foster E.A., Franks D.W., Mazzi S., Darden S.K., Balcomb K.C., Ford J.K.B., Croft D.P. (2012). Adaptive prolonged postreproductive life span in killer whales. Science. 2012, 337: 1313
- Lauren J.N. Brent, Daniel W. Franks, Emma A. Foster, Kenneth C. Balcomb, Michael A. Cant, Darren P. Croft. (2015) Ecological Knowledge, Leadership, and the Evolution of Menopause in Killer Whales. Current Biology
- Stredulinsky, E.H. 2016. Determinants of group splitting: an examination of environmental, demographic, genealogical, and state-dependent factors of matrilineal fission in a threatened population of fish-eating killer whales (Orcinus orca). MSc thesis, University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia. Thomson, R.E. 1981. Oceanography of the British Columbia coast. Canadian Special Publication of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 56.
- TMD Blog – Killer Females (on menopause in Killer Whales, and humans)
- TMD Blog – What’s the Bigg’s Deal (background on Dr. Michael Bigg’s work to ID individual Killer Whales and the different populations off the coast of British Columbia)
- TMD Blog – The A23s, the Story of One Family (human history of attitudes and knowledge told through impacts to one family of Orca)
- Wright, B.M., Stredulinsky, E.H., Ellis, G.M., & Ford, J.K.B. (2016). Kin-directed food sharing promotes lifetime natal philopatry of both sexes in a population of fish-eating killer whales, Orcinus orca. Animal Behaviour, 115, 81-95.