Orca (Killer Whales)
The common names for orca include 'killer whale' or 'blackfish' and, more recently, 'wolves of the sea'. Males typically range from 6 to 8 metres in length and weigh in excess of 6 tonnes. Females are smaller, generally ranging from 5 to 7 metres in length and weighing about 3 to 4 tonnes. The male dorsal fin can reach a height of 6 feet and the female dorsal fin half that, at 3 feet. They can swim at speeds up to and above 30 knots (56km/hr)!
Three distinct lineages of killer whales share the coastal waters of northern B.C.: Northern residents, Bigg's and offshores. Bigg's and resident orca are sighted most frequently in our research area. In the last 15 years we have only sighted offshore orca four times, three of which occurred in 2015. These lineages do not mix with each other and specialize in very different prey resources. Though they appear similar at first glance, the lifestyle and social behaviour of these populations are quite distinct from one another. Residents and Bigg's orcas will not socialize with one another even during the rare occasion they come face to face in the same area.
Read the following pages to learn more about each population of orca. You will discover that much of their behaviour, while unique, is also familiar. As with human populations, these orca lineages are distinguished more by culture than by their physical differences.
The term ‘resident’ was initially inspired by their reasonably predictable and consistent travel patterns as observed by researchers in the 1970’s. Their range extends from the southern portion of coastal Alaska to the northern half of Vancouver Island, and as exclusive fish eaters, resident populations tend to follow the yearly migration of salmon.
Formerly known as 'transients', Bigg's orca are often referred to as the wolves of the seas. They are the whale that lead to the term “killer whale” since they hunt marine mammals, including other whales. What sets Bigg's orca apart from the well-known fish eating resident orca is that Bigg's prey on marine mammals.
Relatively little is known about this population as they spend most of their time off-shore near the continental shelf. They feed on sharks and large bottom fish such as halibut. In 2015 we sighted offshores for the second time in our 15 years of research. During each event we were able to collect identification pictures as well acoustic recordings of their particular dialect, which is very different than that of Bigg's or residents.