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A short natural history of Orcinus orca
The orca, or killer whale, is a wondrous and impressive creature by any measure. For millions of years there has not been a predator in the sea that can touch Orcinus orca, the largest member of the dolphin family. And yet, there is no recorded case of a free-ranging orca ever harming a human. Even when orca mothers are violently pushed away with sharp poles so their young can be wrestled into nets and loaded onto trucks, they have never attacked a human being except in captivity. When seen in movies like Free Willy, or doing tricks at marine parks, it is easy to see that they often show quick responsiveness, even affection toward humans. Having little else to do in captive situations, they often initiate playful interactions and invent creative behaviors.
When encountered in their natural marine environment, however, their behavior is much different, much less interested in human affairs. Though always mindful of boats large and small, they tend to simply continue traveling, foraging or socializing with one another, thoroughly engaged in the complex social life of their families. Occasionally, however, some may pass surprisingly close to a boat as if to inspect the passengers as they glide with masterful ease through these inland waters.
Until field studies began 40 years ago, very little was known about the lifestyles or abilities of these powerful and elusive animals. As a species, orcas have the widest global range of any mammal except humans and may be seen in all types of marine ecosystems, but their highly varied communities, unpredictable movements and behaviors, and the fact that they spend about 95% of their time under water have made them difficult to study. Each orca community worldwide maintains its own repertoire of behaviors, including diet and family patterns, as well as its own vocabulary of vocalizations.
Today, thanks to the dedication of whale researchers, a picture is beginning to form of the highly refined adaptations and social sophistication of this remarkable species.
The Southern Resident Orca Community
Dr. Michael Bigg, who pioneered field research on orcas in the early 1970’s, designated the 80 or so orcas he found in southern BC and Washington the “Southern resident community” to distinguish them from the 120+ members (now over 250) of a different orca community found in northern BC and Alaskan waters. The three Southern resident pods, known as J, K and L pods, usually travel, forage and socialize throughout the inland waters of the Salish Sea (Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands, and Georgia Strait) from late spring through late summer. Throughout their travels they focus on finding chinook salmon, which provide about 80% of their diet. During fall and early winter they tend to look for chum salmon in Admiralty Inlet and Puget Sound.
The Southern Resident community is an extended family, like a clan, that is distinct and separate from all other orca populations. Both male and female offspring remain near their mothers throughout their lives. No other mammal known to science maintains lifetime contact between mothers and offspring of both genders. Also unlike all other mammals except humans, orca females may survive up to five decades beyond their reproductive years, which begin at around 14 years of age and continue until their late 30s or early 40s.
From October through June, K and L pods tend to head to coastal waters along the continental shelf between central California and SE Alaska, while J pod often reappears in the inland waters. All three pods sometimes visit lower Puget Sound during fall months. They are capable of swimming at speeds of 30 mph and usually swim from 75 to 100 miles every 24 hours. In late 2013 the Southern Residents were comprised of just 80 members.
Traveling in multi-generational pod groupings centered around elder females, called matrilines, they are believed to be led by elder matriarchs. The Southern Resident clan is made up of approximately 12 post-reproductive females (over 40 years old), 26 adult females (12-40 years old), 15 mature or adolescent males (over 12 years old), 10 juvenile females (under 12 years old), 15 juvenile males (under 12 years old), and 7 juveniles of unknown gender.
Each individual can be identified by its unique fin shape, markings and color patterns and can be identified by sight or photograph. Using photo-identification methods, each has been identified with a specific alphanumeric designation, such as J2 or L12, and in that way the movements and behavior of each member and each matriline can be studied over many decades. After newborns have survived their first year they are also given more familiar-sounding names, such as “Luna” or “Samish.” When Southern resident pods join together after a separation of a few days or a few months, they often engage in ritualized “greeting” behavior, in which formations of each pod face one another for several minutes, then gradually merge into active groups, each consisting of members of different pods, followed by intense underwater vocalizations and spectacular “play” behavior.
The new Langley Whale Center will open March 1 to describe and celebrate the natural history of local orcas and the “Saratoga grays,” a small group of gray whales, that feed on sand shrimp and other invertebrates buried in the mudflats of Saratoga Passage and Possession Sound. The entryway will feature a 16-foot blue whale jawbone. The Langley Whale Center offers free admission.
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