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’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.
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.