Southern Residents Killer Whales
These Whales have been photographed and studied extensively since the 1970's, which began with the Canadian born Marine Biologist Michael Bigg, who started photographing and cataloguing I.D. photos of all three Southern Resident Pods. Individual whales are identified by using the variability both in the shape of the dorsal fin and the area of pigmentation immediately posterior to the dorsal fin (known as the saddle patch).
Prior to this study by Bigg, Killer Whales were feared as dangerous predators and were even shot by fisherman, which governments actually supported! Throughout the 1960's and early 1970's, the Southern Resident Pods were cornered near Pedder Bay and approximately 47 Killer Whales were removed from the Pods and used in displays around the world.
Bigg's life work with these animals educated and made the public aware of their natural grace and beauty that now draws thousands of people to the area each year. Furthermore, thanks to his work, researchers today are able to more accurately determine population structure, demographics and social dynamics which have most recently provided the basis for listing these animals as endangered under the Canadian Species at Risk Act (SARA) and the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA).
When and how often we see them
These Killer Whales are the most common type of Whale we see and look for. Currently, at BC Whale Tours our sighting record during the peak season is at 100%.
The southern Resident Killer Whales consist of three family groups or pods; J, K and L-Pod. All three pods are frequently sighted in the waters around the southern part of Vancouver Island and Washington State during the summer period (June-September). When all three Pods are together in the same area socializing with one another, it is known as Super Pod.
J-Pod is sighted throughout the winter period, with K and L-Pod being spotted well off the west coast of Vancouver Island and as far south as Monterey, California. According to the Centre for Whale Research, as of July 2013, there are 82 individual whales amongst the three family pods.
· J-Pod currently has 26 whales
· K-Pod currently has 19 whales
· L-Pod currently has 37 whales
Diet & Feeding
The prey mainly consists of salmon and local research has concluded that Chinook salmon is by far the most abundant in stomach content which is believed to be due to their availability year round and high lipid content.
Their feeding strategies are amazing, as they tend to work with one another and share the food amongst the rest of the pod. To locate prey, they use their echolocation – an advanced internal sonar system, which is a series of clicks.
· Echolocation - Is amazing! Their biological sonar system is believed to be far more complex and accurate than any sonar system that humans have produced. To explain some of the basics, the production of echolocation starts in the blowhole, and the actual noise is similar to the a "blowing a raspberry". The noise or vibration bounces around their satelite shaped skull and out through a blubblery lense on their forehead, the "click" then bounces around it's enviroment and comes back to the whale. The whale receives the returned "click" on a blubbery area on its lower jaw, which travels up to its inner ear where it gets a mental image of what it is in front of it. How cool is that evolutionary adaptation!?!?
Vocalization - Their language. The amazing thing is that all the Pods speak the same "language". However, each pod has its own distinct dialect. Amazingly, our experienced drivers can tell which Pod is which just by hearing their vocalizations.
Threats & Conservation
Recently, the southern residents have been enlisted as an endangered animal in both Canadian and U.S. waters. According to Dr. G Graham, the southern resident orca are considered to be among the most contaminated animals on the planet. The major threats of the southern residents include:
- Environmental contaminants
- Reduced prey availability
- Noise pollution
In order to conserve and protect the population of the three family pods of the Southern Residents, strict boating regulations are in place to remove all negative impacts on the animals. Not only do government bodies regulate the driving behaviours of whale watching Captains, but Captains themselves regulate each other and are at times even more strict than the governing bodies. In both the U.S. and Canadian waters, the laws state that you must never be in the path of the whale and you must be at least 200m/yards from the whales at all times.
A major factor in protecting and conserving these animals for future generations is public awareness and education. This is also the main purpose of the Whale Watching Industry, as thousands of people join one of the marine adventure companies to catch a glimpse of these animals in their natural habitat each year.
Graham, G.D. n.d. Is Victoria Sewage Contaminating Southern Resident Killer Whales? SETAC Submisssion