Orca

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Raincoast Research commenced a long-term study on the acoustics and natural history of killer whales, orca, in the Broughton Archipelago in 1984. This region, between Kingcome and Knight Inlets provided protected marine habitat, including inlet, archipelago and estuarine environments. An underwater hydrophone monitors the heart of the archipelago where four major waterways intersect and whales passed frequently. All whales are identified, either through photo-identification or audio recordings when they pass at night. Both resident and transient orca use the area and on one occasion an offshore group was encountered.

While many groups of transient whales are encountered hunting primarily harbour seals and harbour porpoise, but also Steller sea lions and dolphins, among the northern resident whales, the area "belongs" to the "A" pods. If other pods came through, they were generally escorted by an "A" pod member. In April and May members of this group could be seen entering the inlets at the time of the oolichan spawn. Oolichans are an oil-rich member of the smelt family tied closely with First Nation tribes who made "grease" from these fish an essential food and trade item. The whales don't appear to eat the oolichans, but the chinook salmon do and these large fish follow the oolichans and are in turn pursued by the whales.

Oolichan (c) Alexandra Morton (ink)
Oolichan (© Alexandra Morton, ink)

In June whale activity diminished. But in July through October, when large assemblages of orca gather in the salmon-rich adjacent waters of Johnstone Strait, individual families used the area to sleep, feed and relax for a day before re-entering the Strait. Whales swim while sleeping, shutting down one side of their brain at a time. Their pattern was to enter Fife Sound at the beginning of the ebb tide, fish until Tribune Channel, then sleep all the way down Tribune. This channel is straight and deep, no sudden obstructions, the ebb tide slowed their progress and carried scents of what lay ahead - the perfect place for a whale nap. While pebble beach chatter underwater, tidal action roars, speedboats scream and big ships and tugs obliterate all other sound - the inlets were completely silent. Whale calls echoed six times in some places like the ringing of church bells.

In winter when salmon are no longer running in schools as big as rivers, the whale families breakdown into their smallest divisible units - mothers and offspring. In many killer whale groups everyone stays with mom for their entire lives. If families are small two sisters sometimes swim together with their collective children and grandchildren. In winter the whales hunt for bottom fish, and the inlets provide sheltered water and a rest from the windy winter weather of this coast.

In 1993 the salmon farming industry introduced underwater sounds designed to hurt the ears of seals and repel them. The whales vanished to protect their sensitive and essential hearing - ending thousands of years of passage through this archipelago. All the inlets of this coast are likely "claimed" by whale families and whether another let the "A" pods in is unknown. In 1999, the salmon farms turned off their noise, but the whales do not trust the silence yet. Raincoast looks forward to the day Tsitika, Yakat, Scimitar and the others reclaim the Broughton.

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Arrow, a young transient male with his mother (c) Alexandra Morton
Arrow, a young transient male swims up Cramer Pass with his mother (© Alexandra Morton)

Orca call
Orca call

Group spyhop (c) Alexandra Morton
Group spyhop (© Alexandra Morton)

Killer whales love to perform activities precisely together. This begins at birth when infant whales learn to open the blowholes to breath at the surface with their mothers. This group spyhop demonstrates one of the mysteries of the orca - do they have ritual-like behaviours? Orca love a good sunset and sunrise and this photo was taken as shafts of sunlight pierced a thick cloud bank over Alert Bay sending radiant bars of light to the sea. This kind of activity has also been observed in captive whales "greeting" the sunrise.

Transient orca in winter (c) Alexandra Morton
Transient orca in winter (© Alexandra Morton)

Orca (c) Alexandra Morton (ink)
Two orca (© Alexandra Morton, ink)

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RAINCOAST RESEARCH SOCIETY
General Delivery, Simoom Sound, BC, Canada V0P 1S0
E-mail info@raincoastresearch.org
www.RaincoastResearch.org
© Raincoast Research Society 2010

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