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When J pod travels north west up the shoreline of San Juan Island they often spread long and wide, foraging for salmon as they work the current lines for the easiest catch. Near the leaders you will usually find the J-16 matriline, headed up by a female known as ‘Slick’, and with them will be her son J-26, or ‘Mike’.

“Mike” and Mother “Slick”
Photo Credit Hysazu Photography

Mike’s namesake was the well-known Michael Bigg, the late Canadian scientist who was honoured by being known as the ‘father of killer whale research.’ Bigg was truly a pioneer in a time where killer whales such as the Southern Residents were still considered to be vicious, and when governments allowed, or even encouraged, their deaths at the hands of gunmen.

This young Londoner, driven by love for the rugged west coast of Canada that he called home, set out to conduct the first wide-reaching census of killer whales in 1970. His aim was to inform the scientific community of how the live-capture trade for aquaria was devastating this population, and would need to be halted, or greatly regulated, if this species was to persist.

This census however was far from the only major impact Michael Bigg had on whale research. Perhaps his most outstanding contribution to the study of killer whales can be recognized as his research on photo identification of individual animals. Today, we almost take it for granted that there are identification guides with photographs of each whale’s saddle patch to tell us who we are looking at. We also have detailed information about genealogy and sociology within different pods and matrilines at our fingertips. Before Michael Bigg’s research though, we didn’t think twice about the saddle patch – that unique grey ‘swoosh’ behind each whales’ dorsal fin. Through his ingenuity we are know able to follow the lives of each whale from birth to passing, and whale-lovers can spot their favorite characters by sighting these unique markings. Beyond the waters of British Columbia and Washington State, this discovery has allowed for progress in killer whale studies in oceans around the world, from populations in the waters near Iceland to those in Antarctica.

J26 “Mike” photo credit Ken Rea

Michael Bigg, the father of killer whale research? Most definitely. Bigg’s scientific discoveries have enabled much of the modern research that is carried out to this day. When you are out on the water, ‘Mike’ is a regular reminder of his legacy; a mature male with a slight backward lean to his dorsal fin and a prominent split in his saddle patch on the right hand side. He is hard to miss, and reminds us every day of how far we’ve come.

Next week we will discuss Mike’s younger sister Scarlet, a young calf who survived some difficult odds, and whose charming acrobatics made her a viral Internet sensation.

Photo by Gary Sutton

A single male killer whale caused us to question our modern wisdom about the social ties within a population we believed we knew inside and out. His story reminded us that we will never be through with our lessons, and that we are still a few steps behind. His name is L-87, ‘Onyx’.

Born into L pod in 1992 to a mother named ‘Olympia’, Onyx had the early life of other successful young calves. He came to maturity, sporting an impressive dorsal fin that spills to a noticeably wider base than those of his pod-mates. It is important to note that male killer whales spend their entire lives near their mothers. Family appears to be sacred for this matriarchal population of whales, and mating only occurs when two (or all three) pods are together. They do not leave their pods to find mates, nor do they fight one another for dominance. It was for this reason that Onyx’s life was turned on its head – at a relatively young age, he lost his mother.

Scientists were shocked when Onyx began to defy long standing theories of what males do when their mothers pass – as this male became the first known Southern Resident Killer Whale to leave his birth pod and begin travelling with another.  He spent a while travelling with K pod, before being spotted in J pod close to one of the eldest matriarchs. In the years following he remained with this neighboring family, and eventually was known for travelling closely with Granny up until her passing in the autumn of 2016.

Photo by John Boyd

Before the story of Onyx we were certain that these killer whales would never leave their birth pod for another. We had never before seen this behavior, which we humans could only effectively

describe as ‘adoption’. Discoveries like these cause us to question everything we thought we knew about the social dynamics and cognitive abilities of animals like these whales. What is the benefit to them, if any, of taking in another whale that is not technically part of their own family? What can we learn from this development when we cast our eyes forward, and also backward upon our previous ideas? Just because this phenomenon had not been documented in this population in forty years of study does not mean that it could not have happened before, it is simply that no one was paying close enough attention. We will not be making that mistake again.

Next week we get to know Mike, a J-pod male who’s namesake made a lasting impact on the study of killer whales around the world.

Words by: Amanda Madro

There have been very few whales that could be easily identified by more than researchers or seasoned spotters, but ‘Ruffles’ was one of them.

Imagine a smooth inky black dorsal fin emerging slowly from the water, climbing to a height of near two meters as its bearer makes an un-fussed approach toward your tiny boat. As he draws nearer, you began to notice that the trailing edge of his dorsal fin was not straight like those of the other whales nearby.

This male, scientifically noted as J-1, was remarkably memorable due to the gently ruffled cartilage that naturally developed on his dorsal fin as it grew to its full size.

Ruffles was a member of J pod, and travelled very closely to the well-known matriarch named Granny. The two displayed textbook mother-son behavior since the start of the Orca Survey in 1976, through to his passing in 2010. Many strongly believe that the two were related, though some genetic evidence suggests otherwise and the jury is still out. Ruffles was estimated to have been fifty-nine years old when he disappeared, and remains the eldest male on record to this day.

Given humans’ strained understanding of killer whales throughout history, we came very close to never having the chance to get to know Ruffles at all. J pod, along with their relatives K and L pods, were captured multiple different times throughout the 1960’s and 70’s life-capture rush for aquaria. Contracted “whale hunters” (often fishermen or navy personnel) were hired to corral a pod of whales in an enclosed bay. They regularly used nets, explosives, or aircraft to track the whales’ movements and not miss out on a catch. The buyers, mainly well-known theme parks, were most interested in capturing young killer whales. The calves were the easiest to transport and presumably the easiest to train, though our lack of knowledge about the needs of wild killer whales meant that many of the youngsters died during capture, or within days of arrival in their tanks. A handful lasted years, and only one still survives today.

During one of these captures Ruffles was pulled from the makeshift enclosure with intent to be taken from his family. In a fateful turn of events however, he was released back into the water – deemed “too big” to travel to an aquarium. Had that moment gone any other way we may never have seen this charismatic individual again. He may never have gone on to father many calves in K and L pods, and visitors from around the world may never have had the chance to spot that famous ruffled fin. We humans have interfered so much in the lives of whales in the past. Ruffles’ story is one where ‘what could have happened’ is all too plain and clear; and forever reminds us of why we should make the choices that are the best for these whales in the wild, for generations to come.

Next week we will meet Onyx, a male with a story that made us rethink our understanding of the social dynamics within killer whale pods.

Words by: Amanda Madro

 

Weekly Whales: Southern Resident Killer Whales

Granny

What image comes to mind when you think of the word granny? Perhaps a fresh batch of cookies, a well-worn floral apron, a warm crinkled smile?

For us, the word granny summons an entirely different image. We feel anticipation, the rocking of a boat on the Haro Strait, excitement as a pod of killer whales approaches from a distance with an iconic female classically in the lead. Granny, scientifically noted as J-2, was the matriarch of the Southern Resident Killer Whale population. Sadly, she is believed to have passed around October 2016, as this was the first time her pod was seen without her since the start of the Orca Survey study in 1976. Her body was never recovered, but rather returned to the deep to become part of the cycle of life in the ocean once more.

Granny’s journey to fame began when researchers in the Pacific Northwest began their studies of the killer whale population living in the waters between British Columbia and Washington State. J-2 was a unique female, as she was generally travelling in lead of J pod, and presented some mysterious new questions for the scientists to unravel. Behavioral studies pointed to several different whales that were thought to be the offspring of Granny, and it was through the mystery of Granny’s roots that the story of her advanced age began to develop.

Researchers used their data on social bonds, body development, and menopause in adult females to make assumptions about the ages of individuals and their offspring. It was through this process that they came to the conclusion that J-2 was one o f the eldest females in the population. This trait, combined with her leadership qualities, earned her memorable nickname of Granny. Based on this information, Granny was believed to be approximately 105 years old at the time of her death. Though this estimation has been debated over time.

As scientific technology progressed, marine biologists had an ever-widening array of tools at hand to study this enigmatic group of animals. Additionally, the public at large had finally begun to take notice of their work, and attitudes were slowly changing. Non-invasive genetic studies began on the whales to reveal many mysteries of their lives, including family lineages. Over time some of the original assumptions made about these three families were questioned, some overturned and others solidified. We learned more about the intricate social natures of these whales, along with discovering their highly developed language systems. With each new discovery researchers uncovered more questions to be answered. What was it that made Granny such a prominent leader? Was she truly as old as they thought she was?

Scientists believe that Granny’s unique leadership behavior may have been due to the modern discovery that she had no living offspring of her own. She has be known to ‘adopt’ males who have lost their mothers, perhaps explaining her close bond with the male named Ruffles (killer whales do not mate within their own pods, but rather with members of the other two pods in the population. Calves stay with their mothers for life).

When asked who they believe will replace Granny as the dominant matriarch of J pod, researchers give the simple yet complicated answer of “no one”. She is believed to be the only female who could have held her particular role and established such solidarity within the group. Was J-2 truly 105 years old, the eldest living killer whale on earth? We may never know for sure. Researchers believe that she could have been 75 years old, or perhaps even older than 105. One must ask themselves though: does this fact even matter?

Even at 75 Granny would have been the eldest whale in the population by a long shot, and her influence reached much further than simply her impressive age. She taught us about the social dynamics within her population, and the lifelong bonds these whales forge with one another. She captured the hearts and minds of the public and sparked conservation and activism, which aided in the protection of her species and the ocean as a whole. She was unique; a leader and a teacher, as all of our grannies have been. May she rest in peace, and her lessons never be forgotten.

Next week we remember another icon: a male known as Ruffles that was recognizable to visitors from around the world due to his unusual dorsal fin.

Words by: Amanda Madro

Southern Resident Killer Whales

Have you met the Southern Resident Orcas? One uses the term ‘met’, because those who know them will attest to the fact that the experience is far greater than to simply ‘see’.

Lean in, hear their breath. Watch their fascinating movements and delight in the stories told of each pod, discovering how each individual whale has a tale to be shared. Many will know, but for those who don’t, the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population consists of three pods known as J, K, and L. This strictly fish-eating group can also be referred to as J clan, and has fluctuated between a high of 98 and low of 71 individuals since surveys began in 1976. Presently, the Centre for Whale Research census finds 78 whales living in the waters of British Columbia, Canada, and Washington State, U.S.A. Killer whales (or orcas, both are correct) have held positions of cultural importance to coastal First Nations communities since time immemorial, and are subjects of great scientific and cultural interest in the modern day.

There are several top reasons why scientists believe that these whales are struggling to maintain a stable population, all of which will be explored here in this journal series over the coming months. We will discuss cases of individual whales, living and passed, whose lives have helped us to comprehend some of the biggest threats to cetacean populations worldwide – illuminating a path toward a cleaner and healthier future for our oceans.

Of course these whales we have improved upon more than just our understanding of the perils of a modern ocean. As some of the most intelligent animals on the planet, the Southern Resident Killer Whales have helped us discover and appreciate the vast cognitive abilities and social natures of marine mammals. We owe much of this knowledge to a dedicated group of marine scientists who undertook a long-term study with the goal of changing our distorted modern views. No longer were these the unintelligent bloodthirsty beasts of the early 20th century – we finally recognized that they are fascinating sentient creatures worthy of freedom, admiration, and respect.

Next week we get started by examining the impact one of the most iconic whales of our time, a female known as ‘J2’, or more commonly ‘Granny’.

Words by: Amanda Madro

Granny (J2): Oldest Known Orca in The Entire World

Granny (J2) the 105 year old Southern Resident Killer whale has returned to the Salish Sea for another summer of foraging for Chinook salmon and socializing with her family J pod and the other Southern Resident Orca pods, K and L.

J2 has been observed and studied in our waters since the mid 1970s. There are photographs of Granny from the 1930s and the size and growth of Granny and the other orcas are used in the age estimates. Granny is recognizable from the gray saddle patch just behind her dorsal fin, and a half-moon notch in her fin. She is the matriarch leader of J pod and estimated to be born in 1911. The life span of a female orca is between 60 and 80 years old. Granny has surpassed those expectations greatly! Granny has no living off-spring but is grandmother of Samish (J14) and great grandmother to 3 other J pod whales.

Even at 105 Granny hasn’t lost her playfulness. You will often find her spy hopping and breaching along with the younger members of J pod.

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Humpback Whale Sightings

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Although we spend most of our time with Orca Whales we are getting to spend more and more time each year with Humpbacks. We have had some amazing encounters with Humpback whales this season! We are very excited that the Humpback whale population is increasing as the sightings will continue to grow. Humpback whales are seasonal feeders and eat about 4,400-5,500 pounds of plankton, krill and small schooling fish each day during the feeding season. They are one of the largest whales that swim in our waters and grow to be about 15 meters long and weighing about 40 tonnes. These whales usually live to be 45-50 years old.

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For the past couple of weeks there have been several reports of Humpback whales in the area. On one of our afternoon tours we got suited up and headed down south to the report of 20 humpbacks!! As soon as we arrived on scene there was one playful humpback breaching in the distance welcoming us. This was quite a sight to see! The humpback whales are very acrobatic and are known for breaching, spy hopping and slapping their tail on the water’s surface. This season we also got to spend time with Big Mama and one of her calves. The calf has been very active in its behavior and enjoys breaching in and out of the water.

690Humpback whales travel in large loose groups, or even alone with the exception of the mother and calf having a strong bond. We are so incredibly lucky that these gentle giants swim in and out of our waters. Please enjoy some of our best photos so far as we are hoping these endangered species stick around a little longer, as they make their way north to spend their summers feeding.

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Transient Orcas

Transient OrcMay 2015 136as, also known as Bigg’s Killer Whales (named after Dr.Michael Biggs, famous for his Killer whale reseach), or commonly called T’s are an ecotype of Orca that are marine mammal hunters (they also eat the occasional bird, and very rarely a terrestrial mammal, but not humans :). These animals traditionally travel in smaller groups of between two and six individuals and have less stable family bonds (as compared to the Resident Orcas, Southern and Northern). Generally Transient Orcas vocalize less than the Residents and have a different dialect than the other ecotypes.

In the last few years the Bigg’s Killer Whales have become less “transient” in our waters, the Salish Sea. We have, in the 76 calendar days between June 1 and Aug. 15 of last summer 2015, saw transient whales on at least 49 days of 79! We have seen even more consistency so far this season! In the last 10 years, which is short for a species to recover, we have noticed undoubtedly that more and more transient Orca are returning to this area every spring.

InMay 2015 532creased Transient Orca Sightings

The increased amount of Transient Orcas in the area can be attributed to the influx of marine mammals, including harbour seals.The B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network doesn’t tally its counts until the end of the year, but co-coordinator Tessa Danelesko said it’s safe to say transient populations are increasing.
The Vancouver Aquarium says that we are seeing population growth of two to three per cent a year. And they think that’s directly linked to prey availability. It is believed that there are about 300 Transient Orcas living between California and Alaska. All of this is excellent news for a species of cetacean that was once listed as endangered and I know we are all excited to have so many back already this spring!

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Looking forward to a great season!

What an amazing start to the season we have had! The beautiful weather and abundance of wild life has helped us have a great kick off to the season. We have been very lucky to have sightings of some of our Resident Orcas- J pod in the area since mid February, Transient orcas, Humpback whales, seals, sea lions and many marine birds. Over the last year and a half we have had a “baby boom” within our Southern Resident Orca population. Six of these calves have been identified as male and we were excited for the good news of the birth of female calf J53 (L123’s sex is still unknown). Often with good news, there comes sad news, another Resident Killer whale L95 and unknown neo-natal calf were found dead. This is another tragic loss for a beautiful and already struggling species. With these recent occurrings the total population for our Southern Resident Orcas now stands at 83.

On April 7th we were lucky to have the Global news along for a tour early in the season and got to spend the day viewing Transient Orcas, Sea Lions, Seals, Eagles and much more that the Salish Sea has to offer. Over the month of April and into May, the beautiful Sidney weather and the calm seas throughout the Gulf Islands has made for some very memorable trips and some great photo opportunities.

The team at Sidney Whale Watching is looking forward to another great season and excited to share these memorable experiences will all of our guests.

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82 Resident Orcas make for a great summer!

105This season for viewing wildlife in the Salish Sea has been one for the records. As of the summer of 2015, our Southern Resident Orca population has increased to 82 Orcas! During the past year we have had the birth of five healthy Resident calves. Three in Jpod, baby J50 (female) with mom J16 Slick, J51 (male) with mom J41 Eclipse, J52 (male) with mom J36 Alki, and two in L pod, baby L121 (male) with mom L94 Calypso and L122 (male) with mom L91 Muncher.

 

We have alsoQG9E7754 sl Orca pod (1) been very lucky this season with the amount of Super pod days. A superpod is when all three of our Resident Orca pods- J, K, and L meet up in the same area and often put on a great show, breaching, tail slapping, spy hopping and socializing together. J pod has 27 members, K pod is the smallest of the three pods with 19 members and L pod is the largest with 36 members.

 

123Over 99% of our tours this season have been spent with our Resident and/our Transient Orcas. It has been truly fantastic. With the amount of new Resident Orca babies and the general trend of more Transient Orcas and Humpback whales returning to this area, we are all hopeful for many more exciting summers to view these magnificent marine mammals.

 

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