Baby L124 photographed with mom, L77, about five miles from Vancouver Island’s shoreline near Swiftsure Bank. (Submitted/Mark Malleson)

‘Superpod’ of killer whales spotted off Vancouver Island

Questions of health, food supply still plague dwindling southern resident killer whale population

After the devastating news of three resident orca deaths, a sighting of a “superpod” with two healthy-looking calves off the coast of Vancouver Island could be a positive sign.

The mammal-eating transient pods, or “Bigg’s orcas,” who can be spotted hunting along the coast between Alaska and California, have been enjoying the pinniped bounty of the Salish Sea this summer, providing Islanders with incredible sightings and share-worthy images of the orcas’ open saddle patches and rounded dorsal fins splashing through harbours and straits.

But southern residents – their smaller, echolocating, salmon-eating cousins, whose critical habitat spans the southern Strait of Georgia, Haro Strait and Juan de Fuca Strait – have been noticeably absent, and three were declared dead in early August after showing signs of malnutrition, plunging the total population to just 73.

READ ALSO: Three southern resident killer whales declared dead plunging population to 73

On Sunday, Mark Malleson encountered a resident orca superpod – a grouping with members of all three pods present –off the coast of Vancouver Island near Swiftsure Bank.

“I didn’t see them all, they were so spread out, but there was certainly representatives of all the [pods] there and we saw the two new calves,” he said. “That was my first time seeing the calves, I was quite excited to finally lay my eyes on them.”

Baby girl J56 with her mom, J31 hunted with the superpod of resident orcas spotted near Vancouver Island on Sunday. The Southern Residents have been noticeably absent from their critical habitat this summer and were seen as far down the coast as California. (Submitted/Mark Malleson)

Malleson, a photographer and research assistant with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Washington-based Center for Whale Research, was on the water with colleague Joe Zelweitro, searching for a humpback whales seen off Sombrio Point a few days earlier.

After coming across a concentration of humpbacks, they headed west towards Swiftsure Bank, eventually, just five miles from the shore, they spotted the orcas hunting.

“It was great seeing them. They seemed very animated,” he said.

READ ALSO: Aerial photos reveal good and bad news about B.C.’s endangered killer whales

READ ALSO: Bigg’s orcas in the Salish Sea point to shifting habitat of resident killer whales

Lauren McWhinnie, orca researcher and University of Victoria professor, said the superpod sighting may indicate mating amongst the pods. In matriarchal orca society, males stay with their mothers. Interaction with other pods is necessary for breeding.

“When we see interactions with all three pods present, that’s a sign for hope,” she said.

But McWhinnie noted a number of pregnant resident whales have been unable to carry their babies to term, and even those born remain vulnerable until at least two years old.

The calves spotted Sunday – L124 and J56 – are both under one year.

READ ALSO: Killer whale pushing dead calf gets support from her pod

“It is a positive sign that the two calves have made it this far,” she said. “But we are, by no means, out of the woods yet.”

The residents’ summer absence isn’t totally unusual – they have been showing up in their critical habitat more frequently in late summer and early fall for the last few years – but this year was a significant change, she said.

“We’ve never had them this absent from the Salish Sea before in terms of documented history. The fact that they aren’t here is probably indicative that there’s just not the fish here to support them.”



nina.grossman@blackpress.ca

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Gudangaay Tlaats’gaa Naay wins ‘Most Outstanding School’ award

B.C. School Sports will present school with banner, add GTN to plaque as winners of 2019-2020 year

‘A time of transition:’ CHN looking to release next steps of pandemic response this week

State of local emergency is in effect; Gaagwiis says CHN developing indicators to guide next steps

Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Taylor Bachrach urges feds to compensate airline passengers

Letter to transport minister touches on Northwest B.C. tourism operators impacted by COVID-19

Two new bridges to be built along Highway 16 between Port Clements, Tlell

Ministry of Transportation says $5.4-million project expected to be complete in fall 2020

‘Now Is the Time’ doc will start streaming on National Indigenous Peoples Day

Film featuring Haida carver Robert Davidson will launch June 21 for free on NFB website

VIDEO: A Vancouver Island black bear takes weekend nap in eagle tree

Videos captured by Terry Eissfeldt shows the bear arriving Saturday night and sleeping in on Sunday

NDP getting COVID-19 wage subsidy ‘indirectly,’ B.C. Liberal leader says

B.C. NDP says Andrew Wilkinson is wrong about federal link

Parent, superintendent, trustee report smooth return to classrooms in B.C.

The biggest challenge is convincing families that it’s safe, some say

George Floyd asphyxiated by sustained pressure: family autopsy

Death sparked a wave of protests across the U.S. and abroad

Introducing the West Coast Traveller: A voyage of the mind

Top armchair travel content for Alaska, Yukon, BC, Alberta, Washington, Oregon and California!

COVID-19: B.C. commercial landlords can’t evict if they decline rent assistance

Emergency order ‘incentive’ for federal program, Carole James says

Investigators probe death of CN employee at Surrey rail yard

Transportation Safety Board is investigating an ‘occurrence that took place during switching operations’

Trans Mountain starts B.C. leg of pipeline twinning project

Mostly finished in Alberta, Burnaby terminal expanding

Most Read