Bigg’s killer whales splash near Nanaimo’s Neck Point earlier this spring. NATALIE REICHENBACHER/Vancouver Island Whale Watch

‘Almost supernatural:’ orcas active around Nanaimo

Though still a threatened eco-type, transient killer whales appear to be ‘growing at a healthy rate’

Nanaimo’s seascapes are always beautiful. But some of the ocean’s power and majesty only surfaces every so often, in the form of the mighty killer whale.

Orcas can reliably be found in the strait around Nanaimo. Whale-watchers seek them out, ferry and floatplane travellers happen upon them, scientists study them, and many revere them.

“There’s something hypnotic and mythically charged and almost supernatural about them. Their colour, their behaviour…” said Michelle Segal, executive director of Strawberry Isle Marine Research Society, speaking to the News Bulletin on World Oceans Day at Maffeo Sutton Park this month. “Just seeing their dorsal fin come out of the water, it inspires something in us.”

RELATED: Rare white orca seen in the strait near Nanaimo

Of B.C.’s three ‘eco-types’ of killer whales, two can be seen in and around Nanaimo: transient, a.k.a. Bigg’s killer whales, and resident orcas, generally the endangered southern residents.

Thomas Doniol-Valcroze, lead scientist for the Department of Fisheries and Ocean’s Pacific region cetacean research program, said northern residents have been seen near Nanaimo, but “it’s extremely rare,” whereas the southern residents will travel through the area during the winter months especially, up almost to Johnstone Strait.

The “vast majority” of killer whales around Nanaimo, he said, are the transients, which primarily eat seals and sea lions and sometimes porpoises.

While still considered threatened, the transients appear to be doing well, Doniol-Valcroze said.

“Especially seen from drone footage from above, it’s really easy to see that they’re quite robust and well-fed and healthy,” he said. “And their numbers have been increasing in terms of population numbers, the number of sightings, the number of animals in each group when the groups are sighted. Everything seems to indicate that this population is growing at a healthy rate.”

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That’s been the experience of Vancouver Island Whale Watch lately. There have been lots of Bigg’s sightings this month, especially, said Natalie Reichenbacher, manager of the Nanaimo-based tourism business.

“All whale-watching vessels are avoiding the residents, to give them some space as they recover, so even if they are around, no one’s watching them anymore,” she said. “But the transient population has been growing steadily and so everyone’s watching the transients.”

And the Bigg’s killer whales are well worth watching. Killer whales are considered an apex predator because they’re at the top of the food chain, and with the transients, that fact is underlined when they hunt intelligent marine mammals.

“It’s always kind of high action and splashing around…” Reichenbacher said. “It’s fun to watch – some people, it makes them a bit squeamish, I guess, because seals are cute as well – but it’s the circle of life.”

Whale-watchers come across the orcas in family groups and there are lots of new calves recently, Reichenbacher said, adding that they’re finding so much food that they’re able to reproduce more quickly.

Every day is a fresh start, she said, as far as locating the whales, and it can take an hour or two of travel some days.

“And then the past month, we’ve had four or five or more encounters where it’s just outside Nanaimo,” she said. “You could see them from the Gabriola ferry terminal, near Dodd’s Narrows, so Nanaimo’s backyard has definitely been a hot spot recently for transient orca.”

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The southern residents are being watched, too, but in a different sense. The population size is 76 individuals, Segal said, and “critically endangered.”

She said with resident killer whales, chinook salmon makes up 95 per cent of their diet. One of the stated reasons for the federal government’s shutdown of the chinook fishery this year was to protect southern residents.

Since seals and sea lions eat chinook, and transient orcas eat seals and sea lions, that could have some net benefit to southern residents, suggested Doniol-Valcroze. Certainly there’s a connection, he said, but it can’t be fully understood.

“Food chain links are always complex and hard to quantify,” he said.

The study continues, though. The DFO is routinely advised about orca sightings, by fishermen, whale watchers, seaplane operators and B.C. Ferries, for example, and might then launch boats from Nanaimo’s Pacific Biological Station to “intercept” the pods, take photos and identify the group and its individuals, Doniol-Valcroze said.

“We don’t do systematic, dedicated research efforts from Nanaimo, but we will respond opportunistically to observations of whales passing by,” he said.

More focused work happens on the west coast of the Island, the Juan de Fuca Strait, the north Island and the central and north coast of B.C., he said, and the DFO’s West Vancouver lab is leading dedicated field work this season in the Gulf Islands focusing on threats impacting southern residents.

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Efforts to ‘save the whales’ have intensified this year, first with the fishery closure and then with new laws to limit disturbances to killer whales. Boaters must stay 200 metres from all killer whales, and must now stay 400 metres away in certain “critical habitats,” says the DFO.

“It’s everybody’s combined responsibility to protect the species that live in our ocean,” Segal said. “It’s hard when you know that it’s ultimately the government making choices, but there’s little things that we can do every single day that will help.”

Activities like beach cleanups and choices like using less single-use plastics and reducing one’s carbon footprint, she said, are key, especially if people start to embrace those choices as something they want to do rather than as sacrifices.

Reichenbacher said Vancouver Island Whale Watch sends “a strong conservation message with each trip” and said guests are receptive to it. Making sustainable seafood choices, she said, is one of the easiest ways to make a positive impact toward saving the whales.

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Killer whales look a lot alike. The Bigg’s are a little bit longer than the residents (6.0-7.3 metres compared to 6.0-6.6m), have a pointier dorsal fin, and travel in smaller pods, according to Strawberry Isle. They might be indistinguishable to a layperson. But the eco-types never interact with each other.

“They have different languages. We call them different cultures, even,” Segal said.

Doniol-Valcroze said they completely ignore each other, as if the other eco-types don’t even exist, yet because of the way their food sources are connected, they’re linked.

And so are humans. Doniol-Valcroze is from Eastern Canada, but said he’s come to understand “the passion and intensity of the feelings” that people on the West Coast have for orcas.

“They certainly have become emblematic of the marine wildlife here and also, I guess, the impact that humans have on the environment,” he said. “There’s such a feeling of power and strength when you see them and I guess it must be quite shocking to people to realize that they are still fragile and vulnerable.”

Segal agreed that the killer whale has become an “ambassador for ocean health,” but noted that the bond is even stronger than that.

“The human connection to killer whales goes back many thousands of years and if we lose that connection, then we’ll lose the animal,” she said.

Reichenbacher agreed that British Columbians are lucky to have killer whales in our midst, where we observe them and marvel at them, without ever fully understanding them.

“There’s a lot of mystery with them,” she said. “Even though we’re constantly learning more about them over the years by watching them in the wild, it just leads to more questions. Why are they doing this? And what are they going to do next?”



editor@nanaimobulletin.com

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