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Distribution

World wide

Killer whales are the most widely distributed mammal on the earth after humans. They can be found in all oceans of the world but are most frequently found in temperate and polar waters.   Despite this widespread distribution they are very rare in most places, with the exception of Antarctica, Northern Japan, Russia Iceland, Norway, Alaska, New Zealand and the Pacific Coast of North America. Only a single species, Orcinus orca, is recognized at this time.


Killer whales can be found in all oceans of the world, but concentrations are usually found in high latitude areas. 

 

In British Columbia, the distribution of resident, transient and offshore killer whales overlaps extensively. 

Resident killer whales

Resident killer whales are most commonly spotted in the summer months when they congregate at natural ‘bottlenecks’ for river-bound salmon along the coast.

Southern resident killer whales spend most of the summer around Southern Vancouver Island and Northern Washington.  In the winter they range as far north as Haida Gwaii and as far south as California.  The critical habitat of southern resident killer whales includes an area on the Washington/British Columbia border that includes parts of Haro Strait and Boundary Pass and adjoining areas in the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. 

Northern residents killer whales are most commonly seen around northern Vancouver Island, and along B.C.’s Central and North Coasts. In the winter they range northward into Southeast Alaska and as far south as Washington State. Critical habitat for northern resident killer whales has been designated as the waters of Johnstone Strait, the southeastern portion of Queen Charlotte Strait, and the channels connecting these two bodies. 


Other areas of critical habitat for both southern and northern residents likely exist but have not yet been identified.

Biggs (transient) killer whales

Offshore killer whales

The ‘west coast’ population of Biggs (transient) killer whales ranges from California to southern Alaska. Scientists are still learning whether this is a single group or if different areas may have distinct groups of Biggs (transients).  At least three other populations of Biggs (transient) killer whales are found in SW Alaska, including the critically-endangered “AT1” population of Prince William Sound. Offshore killer whales have been encountered from southern California to the Aleutian islands of Alaska.  Most encounters with offshore killer whales have occurred along the continental shelf.  However, groups of offshores are occasionally sighted in inshore waters such as Johnstone Strait and the Strait of Georgia.
 

 

Help out

You can help researchers learn more about the distribution of killer whales in British Columbia and surrounding waters by reporting your sightings to the BC Cetacean Sightings Network