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Posts tagged ‘transients killer whales’

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.

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

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.

Mature male mammal-eating killer whale “Siwash” breaching in front of Alert Bay on August 31, 2011. 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.” 

Whale Wonders – June 2011

ID photo of “Dusty” the grey whale by Christie McMillan. See the Marine Education and Research Society blog for many more photos and detail on Dusty (link below).

Two more unique whale events have been documented in the ocean corridor between Port McNeill, Sointula and Alert Bay (Northern Vancouver Island, B.C.,Canada).

Following the remarkable “visit” of offshore* killer whales at the end of March, on May 16th what is likely the largest group of marine mammal-eating** killer whales ever documented swam past our communities.

It is possible that there were up to 37 different animals in this group. These killer whales, as hunters of marine mammal prey, need to have a culture of stealth and unpredictability and therefore usually travel in small groups. It should be noted that the work of the Orca Lab documented this extraordinary encounter (both visually and acoustically) and that DFO expertise determined the IDs of the whales. (Click here for OrcaLab’s blog on the encounter). 

Then, this last week, we had frequent sightings of a little grey whale in front of our communities. Grey whales are already a rarity in our specific area but what makes this whale really unique is that s/he is potentially the first grey whale known to become a summer “resident” here.

Jared Towers and Christie McMillan (of the Marine Education and Research Society /MERS) confirmed that this is the same grey whale that they kept an eye on last year. From June to early October 2010, the whale was more often around Cormorant Island and the east end of Malcolm Island and became known as “Dusty” and “LGW” (Little Grey Whale). Dusty is relatively easy to identify as an individual because its tail bears the evidence of having survived an attack by mammal-eating killer whales and because there are distinct markings on its flanks including the larger white spot seen in the image above. 

This May 31st, Christie and Jared confirmed that Dusty had returned to the area and was the whale that many of us in Port McNeill, Sointula and Alert Bay had the great privilege of seeing while it fed near our shores. (Click here for Jared and Christie’s MERS blog with far more detail on Dusty and includes pictures). 

If we are indeed so lucky that Dusty is able to “make a living” by feeding here, we’ll be able to whale watch from land with some predictability.  We will also need to be good marine neighbours, since Dusty has been sighted very near the harbours of our communities and can surface very unexpectedly. 

* Offshore killer whales are most often near the continental shelf and their diet has been confirmed to include sharks. Click here for a previous “The Marine Detective” blog on the offshore killer whales sighted at the end of March, 2011. 

** The mammal-eating killer whales are known as “transients” and “Bigg’s killer whales”. The latter name is a recent move to honour the late Dr. Michael Bigg, father of killer whale research. Recent research has found these to be the most genetically divergent type of killer whale and they may be recognized as a different species.

Record of possible sightings of Dusty as of June 7th. 

  • June 7 – Port McNeill 
  • June 8 – Alert Bay (Source – MERS, confirmed as Dusty)
  • June 9 – Campbell River. (Source – Susan MacKay, confirmed ) 
  • June 11 – Campbell River seen heading north (Source – via Susan MacKay) 
  • June 12 – passing by the Orca Lab, Blackfish Sound (Source Orca Lab; ID photos to come)
  • June 15 – Port McNeill

Brutal, Breath-Taking Beauty – Transient Killer Whales

In our work as the Marine Education and Research Society, Jared Towers, Christie McMillan and I went out on December 4th, 2010 on the waters of Northern Vancouver Island in the hopes of finding a Humpback Whale. We didn’t. Instead Nature gifted us with two sightings of Transient (mammal-eating) Killer Whales; a total of 16 animals (now also known as “Bigg’s Killer Whales“).

First we found the T55s and T19s. The lighting on this December day was so beautiful; when these whales blew, rainbows appeared to erupt around them.

A Mother Hunting: Transient Killer Whale mother T140 and her calf chasing Pacific White-Sided Dolphins. Note Telegraph Cove in the background. Image: ©Jackie Hildering

Then, when in transit back to Alert Bay, we found T139, the T140s and T141s.  We had also seen +/-300 Pacific White-Sided Dolphins in the area so knew that there was a possibility that these Killer Whales might choose to have dinner. The display we then witnessed was both brutal and breath-taking.

One of the mature females erupted out of the water higher than I have ever witnessed. She cleared the surface by at least 1.5 body lengths, apparently having rammed the dolphin that was spinning through the air ahead of her. Other spectacular leaps followed, one where mother and calf leapt at the same time – mother high, her calf lower but in almost perfect synchronicity.

Once aware that the Transient Killer Whales were there, the dolphins cascaded away with incredible energy. We could see them still in full flight, several kilometres away, even more than 10 minutes after the initial attack.  But yes, at least one dolphin did not get away. It is the role of Transient Killer Whales to eat other marine mammals; they need to feed their babies too.

I share some of these photos of these encounters at the link below. Realize that the images were taken with a 400 mm lens.

Even after my 12 years on (and under) these waters, I am left stunned at the area’s beauty, biodiversity and the opportunity to learn. 

Click here for more photos from the December 4, 2010 encounter.