Killer Whale (Orcinus orca)
The Killer Whale is, apart from humans, the most widespread mammal in the world. Still, it is well known in only a few areas, and one of these is the coastal waters of British Columbia. In the early 1970s, researchers developed a system of photo identifying individual whales, in order to better understand their natural history and monitor the population. Every whale has identifying features on its dorsal fin, and the gray “saddle patch” behind the dorsal fin, and an extensive catalogue of Orca “mug shots” is now on file, each taken from the whale’s left side.
It was soon learned that these animals have a well-established family structure, travelling in groups called pods. Some of the pods lived in the northern part of the Strait of Georgia (the “northern resident” pods), and others remained in the southern half of the strait, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca (the “southern residents”). It was also discovered that there were other pods that seemed to move more randomly. They became known as the “transient” whales. While they looked similar, it was learned that they fed exclusively on marine mammals, while the resident whales appeared to feed only on fish, mainly salmon. A third group, which appears occasionally off the west coast, is still poorly understood. Each pod is structured around the oldest female, with males remaining in their mothers’ pods. These groups communicate vocally underwater, and each pod uses a slightly different dialect.
Because Killer Whales have been identified individually for some years now, their lives are becoming better known to marine biologists. The bulls are larger, reaching a weight of 9,000 kilograms, and a length of almost ten meters. A bull’s dorsal fin may be almost six feet high. Maturity may not be reached until the age of 15 to 20 years. Cows are thought to live longer than the bulls, with average life expectancy estimated to be 50 years. Some cows may be as old as 80 years of age.
With well-understood movements, the Killer Whale has become an extremely popular attraction for British Columbia visitors. Many companies offer whale watching cruises on Vancouver Island. As concern grows about the negative effects of whale watching, these companies are working very hard to self-monitor their activities. There is to date no evidence that the whales are suffering because of humans’ fascination with them.
Gray Whale (Eschschrictius robustus)
Each spring, some 20,000 Gray Whales move passed the western shore of Vancouver Island, en route to summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. The 30-ton giants can be seen from shore, as early as February, with females and calves passing in April and early May. They return in the fall by the same route to their calving and wintering areas in the lagoons of Baja California. Gray Whales belong to the family known as baleen whales, which feed by straining huge mouths full of sea-bottom mud through filter-like baleen plates.
Tiny marine organisms are thus captured by the baleen, and then swallowed by the whale. These large and slow animals are often encrusted with barnacles and other marine life, visible when they surface.
Gray Whales were almost hunted to extinction in the early 1900s, but have recovered well since their hunting was banned in 1947. Whale watching expeditions are available from the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Annual Calendar of the Gray Whale:
- January and February: Gray Whales spend the winter in the warm waters off Baja California, Mexico.
- March, April, and May: They migrate north, hugging the west coast of North America.
- June to October: In the Bering and Chukchi Seas, the whales spend the summer feeding. To the delight of Vancouver Island whale watchers, some grays stop to eat at this latitude instead of continuing north with the rest of the population.
- November and December: Grays swim back down to Baja California, usually faster and farther offshore than during the northward leg of their migration.
- In total, the 16,000 to 22,500-km round trip – depending on how far north they go – is one of the longest migrations of any mammal on earth.
Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)
The Humpback Whale is one of the medium sized baleen whales. They are distinctive for their long pectoral flukes, and pale undersides.
Of a global population of some 10,000 whales, about 2,000 inhabit the north Pacific Ocean. They breed in waters off Mexico and Hawaii, and migrate to the north Pacific to feed in the summer. Like other baleen whales, Humpbacks feed by sieving seawater through the fan-like baleen plates that hang from the roofs of their mouths.
This species is unique in that several whales may create a ring of bubbles called a “bubble-net”, to concentrate small fish and crustaceans into an area, so they can be more easily consumed. These large whales can stay submerged for about thirty minutes, but usually are down for shorter periods. On the surface, they engage in spy-hopping, flipper-flapping, tail-slapping, and breaching. Once quite common, even in inshore waters, the Humpback Whale is currently listed as threatened, and its numbers are recovering.