Where are the whales?!
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked that question, I could now purchase an E-Tec engine for my little research boat and live with a clearer and cleaner carbon conscience!
It is indeed the question most often asked of marine naturalists and suggests there are those who believe there is incredible predictability to viewing wild whales; that there may even be a single location where they will always be found.
I have found this is particularly true in reference to killer whales and a significant number of people appear to believe the Michael Bigg (Robson Bight) Ecological Reserve in Johnstone Strait will always have killer whales within its boundaries.
Of course, it does not help with comprehension that the inshore fishing-eating populations of British Columbia have been named “residents.”
This leads to Northern Vancouver Island often being promoted as “home” to a population of some 260 members of the northern resident population.
In answering “Where are the whales,” I will make the point you can never quite know where wild whales are and, when I think I can get away with being a little bit cheeky — which thankfully is quite often — I will make this point with the answer: “The whales are underwater.”
But, it is of course true Northern Vancouver Island is possibly the most predictable place on earth to see killer whales and it’s our extraordinary privilege to live in the area that is a mecca for those hoping to see them and so much more marine wildlife.
However, the killer whales are not resident and they are not in this area in the hundreds.
My answer to “Where are the whales” must therefore also explain killer whales have culture; they have evolved into discrete ecotypes whose lifestyles have been shaped by what they eat.
B.C.’s waters have two populations of highly vocal and social in-shore fish-eating killer whales that love to snack on salmon — the northern and southern “residents” — a population of stealthy marine-mammal-eating killer whales — “transients” — and a fish-eating population that’s more often off the continental shelf and whose diet includes sharks — “offshores.”
In order to preserve the culture that allows them to specialize on different prey, none of these populations mate with one another.
The predictability of seeing them is dependent on where their prey is and how stealthy they have to be to successfully hunt.
Johnstone Strait is the only waterway that allows full passage on the inside of Vancouver Island and therefore it is like a funnel for the salmon traveling to natal rivers further south to spawn.
This is why, most often, there are some families —“matrilines” — of the northern resident population in our area from July into Oct./Nov.
This is when the salmon are running and the killer whales are especially present when there is the opportunity to pursue fatty Chinook salmon.
Sometimes, presumably when whale bellies are full enough, there will be some 100 madly socializing members of the northern resident killer whale population around Johnstone Strait.
However, this is a rarity since the families have different affinities for areas of B.C.’s coast.
There are some families, like the A12s and the A30s, that have an extraordinary affinity for fishing in this area, while other families, like the Hs and Rs, very rarely chase the salmon around Johnstone Strait.
Sometimes we even have groups of southern residents in our area and this is the endangered population more often found near Victoria.
In contrast to residents, there is less seasonality in the movements of the marine-mammal-eating transient killer whales since seals, sea lions, dolphins, porpoises, etc., can be here year round.
But, but, but . . . this does not mean if you see a killer whale in our area in the winter it’s a transient.
Resident killer whales can be here in the winter as well, but unlike at other times of the year, it’s usually not for more than a day at a time and they likely are here to feed on other fish species like halibut.
The OrcaLab on Hanson Island monitors whale vocals year round and, since every northern resident family’s calls are distinct, they can even conclude which families are in the area and have recorded the presence of resident killer whales as recently as last week.
Despite all this knowledge, there is so much we do not know about B.C.’s killer whales and the threats that have necessitated all populations getting protection under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.
Where are the whales? Come learn more about them and how you can help at the following two local, free events.
• Where are the whales – Cetaceans, citizen science and you – by Caitlin Birdsall of the Cetacean Sightings Network. The talk will cover most of the cetacean species that can be found in B.C. and happens on: Feb. 11 at the Gate House Theatre in Port McNeill at 1 p.m. – hosted by the Young Naturalist Club of NVI; Feb. 13 at the Quatse Salmon Centre at 7 p.m.; and Feb 15 at the F.O. Hall in Sointula at 7 p.m., hosted by the Living Oceans Society.
• DFO’s Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whale Action Planning Public Consultation to prioritize actions in support of the recovery of resident killer whale populations in Canadian Pacific waters. Feb. 23 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Quarterdeck Inn.
Jackie Hildering is a biologist, avid scuba diver, and marine educator who lives in Port McNeill. See www.themarinedetective.ca for more detail.