These whales have been photographed and studied extensively since the 1970's. The Canadian born Marine Biologist Michael Bigg started by 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).
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%. Especially with our MVP Guarantee, which is in effect from June 1st to September 30th.!
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 December 2014 there are 79 individual whales amongst the three family pods with a new addition to J Pod (J50) being confirmed as of December 30, 2014.
The prey mainly consists of salmon; 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 echolocation – an advanced internal sonar system, which consists of 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 "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 its 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!?!?
One Click at a Time - When they are echolocating, whales only ever send out one click and do not send another one until they receive the previous one. When the clicks are closer together it basically means the whale itself is phyiscally close.
Social Dynamics - The residents are incredibly social with one another and stay in the same Pod they are born in for their entire life. There are times when certain individuals or a couple of individual whales do break away from the pod, but this tends to be only for a few days and they always re-group with the rest of the Pod.
Killer Whales live in a matriarchal social system, where the females seem to be giving the orders and the oldest female is the leader of the pod. It is believed that the main reason it is a matriarchal system is due to the fact that females live a couple of decades longer than males, which makes females the wiser and more experienced whales. This implies that females do the majority of the teaching and educating in hunting techniques, language and other social activities.
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.
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 orcas are considered to be among the most contaminated animals on the planet. The major threats of the southern residents include:
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 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