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Saw a beautiful pod of killer whales. What a fantastic trip and beautiful city. - July 19th, 2016

Julie from Baltimore

Killer Whales (Orcinus orca)

Killer Whales, also known as Orca, have a widespread distribution. They can be found in every ocean basin in the world, both tropical and temperate. They are amongst the most studied cetaceans, thanks in large part to the work of researchers in Washington, British Columbia and Alaska where family groups, known as pods, have been monitored for nearly forty years.

In the coastal areas of BC and Washington three genetically distinct ‘eco-types’ of Killer Whales can be observed; they are known as residents, transients and offshores. Although, these eco-types differ from each other in many aspects of their biology and ecology, the primary difference is their diet. Resident Killer Whales mainly eat salmon, whereas Transient Killer Whales hunt for other marine mammals, such as seals and porpoises. Offshore Killer Whales are not as well known to researchers as they do not enter coastal areas frequently, but it is thought they consume sharks and other large fish.

On the majority of our trips, we observe members of the Southern Resident Community of Killer Whales.

Being the largest member of the dolphin family, Killer Whales, are highly intelligent and social animals, family bonds are very important. Killer Whales travel in pods, which are extended family groups of closely-related individuals. When a calf is born it will likely travel with its mother for his/her entire life.

In the Southern Resident community of Killer Whales there are three pods, commonly referred to as J,K and L-Pod.

There are currently around 87 individuals in the Southern Resident community; this population is listed as endangered in both the United States and Canada. There is an estimated 320 individuals in the Transient Killer Whale community that ranges from Northern California to Southeast Alaska; this population is considered a threatened species in Canada.

The main conservation threats to local Southern Resident Killer Whales are:

  1. Prey Availability, declining Chinook salmon runs in BC, Washington and California mean there is less food available to support this population.
  2. Pollution, predators at the top of the food chain are most at risk to accumulate toxins and these toxins can impact an animal’s immunity and reproductive capabilities.
  3. Ocean Noise, Killer Whales rely on sound to find food, socialise and navigate. Increasing ocean noise, such as sonar and oil and gas exploration, could potentially disturb these animals.

Resident Killer Whales can be observed in our area year-round. However, they are here more consistently during the spring, summer and early autumn when salmon move inshore to return to their spawning rivers.

Transient Killer Whales can also be seen in this area year-round. Their stealth-like travel and unpredictable movements make them more difficult to locate then Resident Killer Whales.

For more information on Killer Whales and some of the long-term research projects monitoring marine mammals in Southern BC, please visit the following sites:

Center for Whale Research

Vancouver Aquarium- Cetacean Research

Orca Network

American Cetacean Society- Killer Whale Fact Sheet