British Columbia’s Orcas

The name “killer whale” has invoked fear in humans for generations.  Early descriptions of “whale killers” or “killers of whales” gave rise to the common name.  Orca, derived from Orcinus orca and used more often these days, may not be any better for the species’ reputation. In Latin, Orcinus orca translates to “whale from the underworld of the dead”. 

Strictly speaking, orcas are not whales – they’re black and white dolphins.  Studies have shown vast complexity within the species and there seems to be three distinct population types: resident, transient and offshore.  Resident orcas feed on fish, transients on mammals, including whales, but little is known about offshore individuals.  Heavy scarring and worn down teeth seem to suggest sharks comprise a portion of an offshore orca’s diet.

BC’s Southern Resident orcas include three pods (J,K, and L) comprised of more than 80 individuals.  The pods were made famous in National Geographic Magazine’s April 2005 issue (Check out http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2005/04/orcas/chadwick-text for the full article and photos).  Today, we’re in search of those same pods with Wild Whales Vancouver guiding us. 

11:00 am: Departure from Granville Island, Vancouver.  Low cloud cover and fall-like temperatures may prove to be a blessing in disguise.  When the weather turns for the worse, many marine species tend to move closer to shore so our hopes are high.

11:50 am: Update from Captain Scotty.  “We have good news and bad news.  The good news is that there are reports of orcas from two of the three resident pods (K and L pods).  The bad news is that they’re all the way down near Victoria, another two hours away.  But don’t worry, we have plenty of gas and we may encounter the third pod (Pod J) on the way down.”

12:55 pm: We pass by a small group of Dall’s porpoises, the fastest cetacean in the region, even faster than orcas. 

Dall's porpoise

1:10 pm: Fleeting glimpses of harbor porpoises, a shy and elusive species.

1:50 pm: Orcas!  Once orcas are spotted, a boat is only allowed to stay in the area for an hour.  Since these individuals were feeding, we only caught short glimpses of individuals as they surfaced for a breath between dives.  We saw several males with huge dorsal fins, but the highlight was a young calf swimming alongside its mother. 

Young calf swimming alongside mother.

After further research, the young calf was identified as a member of L Pod.  Its sex is still unknown and it was probably born sometime between December 2010 and February 2011.  The calf’s scientific name is L118, and it belongs to L55.  The L Pod matriline can be viewed at http://www.whaleresearch.com/orca_ID_matrilines.html under ‘L-Pod’ although it’s a bit too early for the calf to be included in the chart.

6:00 pm: Arrival to Vancouver.  Hot chocolate waiting.

For more information on BC’s orcas, check out http://netcommunity.vanaqua.org/KWAP and http://orcasound.net/.

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