By becoming a member of the Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program you will be directly supporting research on wild killer whales. Continuing research will lead to a better understanding of the whales, their place in the ocean ecosystem, and the conservation measures necessary to protect them.




Whale Update....

Northern Residents

As the season turns to winter whale updates start to slow down. The killer whales are not around as regularly at this time of year and even if they were short days and winter weather discourages all but the hardiest mariners from going out to look for them.

A50 and family
A late update from the summer field season – after going thru hundreds of photos taken this summer we are excited to announce that there are couple new mothers in the northern residents.  Clio (A50) is a new mother with her third calf born this year and Kimsquit (R13) has had a second calf this year.  Goletas’ (I13) second calf was spotted early in 2011 and after being seen this summer with mom and older sibling Tatnall (I108) has been give the scientific number I112.
On November 14th OrcaLab reported hearing A-clan calls off Cracroft Point.  Two whales, Surge (A61) and Current (A79), were identified in the group as the whales headed towards Blinkhorn point.  A-clan calls were heard again on Nov 23rd and there was a report of six killer whales passing by Telegraph Cove.  On Nov 28th A4 and A5 pods headed east past Robson Bight and south down Johnstone Strait. Further north in Camano Sound off the BC central coast, Cetacealab reported seeing the A34s on Nov 20th and the A36 brothers on Nov 25th.


Southern Residents

breach Davies
Photo: Susanne Davies

There have been consistent reports of all three southern resident pods spending time off the west side of San Juan Island and Haro Strait in early November.  On Nov 10th, members of K pod including Raggedy (K40), Cappuccino (K21), K16, and K35 were all spotted south of Discovery Island.  On Nov 15th, J and K pod members were foraging in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and on Nov 21st J’s and K’s along with L87 were spotted 5 km off Sooke.  The whales were swimming in place against an ebb tide, possibly catching chum salmon.  J, K and possibly L pod were seen traveling south through Dodd Narrows just south of Nanaimo on Nov 26th. Jared Towers, a researcher with the Fisheries and Oceans' cetacean research program, was able to ID the whales as southern residents.  On Nov 27th, the same group of whales was again sighted travelling south in Haro Strait and milling around off Victoria the next day.  Calls from the J’s and K’s were heard on the Lime Kiln hydrophone on Dec 5th from about 1am to 6am, and as December reaches the midway point, southern resident sightings appear to be dwindling.    



transient face
Photo: Susanne Davies

Transient calls were still heard regularly throughout November from Orca Lab on Hanson Island at the south end of Blackfish Sound; however, due to the weather it makes it difficult to get on the water and identify the whales. On December 5th, the whales and weather cooperated and approximately 30 transients were seen in Johnstone Strait near Hanson Island! Members of the superpod were included the T10’s, T26’s, and the T18’s/19’s.  

There have been a few sightings of transients at the southern end of Vancouver Island as well.  On Nov 10th Pandora (T20), Kwatsi (T21), and the T002C’s were all seen about 15km south of Victoria.  Pandora and Kwatsi were spotted again off Spieden Island on Nov 16th, and on Constance Bank on Nov 25th.  December kicked off with transients near Race Rocks from Dec 2nd-3rd.  

December 2011
In this issue

 Whale Update
 Field Notes
 In the News 




Find Us Online  



Share Whale News
If you enjoyed this issue of Whale News Email Newsletter, please forward it to a friend!

For questions or comments about what you see in this newsletter please send an email to [email protected]



Field Notes....

It's not too late to give a truly unique gift for the holiday!

Looking for a last minute gift idea? Or having trouble coming up with Christmas gifts for those on your list who don’t really want anything – except maybe to save the world?  This year put something wild under the tree and give your loved one a truly unique gift – a killer whale adoption.

jingle bells

Funding research that benefits wild killer whales is a great way to love and help protect these magnificent creatures long-term.  Anyone can adopt – an individual of all ages, or even the whole family.  The Vancouver Aquarium’s BC Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program matches up the would-be adopters with their new 5000 kilogram bundle of joy.

It’s not too late to give the gift of a whale adoption.  Adoption packages are created and mailed daily and shipping within BC only takes 2 days. Adoption packages can also be purchased from the Vancouver Aquarium gift store. If you are still worried the package won't arrive in time for Christmas, we can email you a digit copy of the adoption certificate and whale biography to go under the tree.  For more information visit or call 604.659.3430.  



Workshop on killer whale prey requirements 

The rugged BC coast is a difficult place to conduct field work in the fall and winter months, however research still continues in full force despite the lack of “on-the-water” observations.  From September 21-23, 2011 Vancouver Aquarium Senior Marine Mammal Scientist Lance Barrett-Lennard attended the first of three workshops by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the US National Marine Fisheries Service entitled: Evaluating the Effects of Salmon Fisheries on Southern Resident Killer Whales. 

Fish Lopez
Photo: Joan Lopez

Southern resident killer whales have been identified as a distinct population in both Canada and the US.  Both countries have listed southern residents as endangered and are required by their respective legislation to reduce and mitigate threats to these whales.  The series of workshops is intended to look at the availability of resident killer whale prey to determine whether the whales have sufficient food resources to survive and recover.  

Resident killer whales are salmon-specialists with a very high preference for Chinook salmon.  Both resident killer whales and Chinook are listed under Canada’s Species At Risk Act, which means the needs of one species has to be balanced against another.  When one protected species relies almost exclusively on another protected species, it can be very difficult to develop management plans that meet the needs of both species, especially when the species’ are found in trans-boundary waters!  In order to facilitate the recovery of the southern residents, a strong correlation between Chinook salmon abundance and killer whale mortality - recently discovered by Dr. John Ford and colleagues - must be fully understood. 

The workshop addressed these issues through presentations covering: fisheries that may affect prey availability; Chinook abundance and food energy available to killer whales; and the feeding habits and dietary needs of southern residents.  Although the southern resident population is an extensively studied group of killer whales, scientists don’t have the full story yet.  During the summer months, the whales are encountered regularly and studies show they are preying on salmon runs returning to the Fraser River.  But in the winter, however, their whereabouts and what they are feeding on is largely unknown.  The ecology of the southern residents in the winter (and spring and fall) is critical to understanding the reliance of the whales on Chinook salmon.

A review panel comprised of scientists not connected with government and nor participating in killer whale research was established to report on the findings from the workshop.  The report from the first workshop will provide guidance for the second workshop and so forth for the third workshop.  Hopefully, at the end of this workshop series, scientists, policy-makers, and fishers will reach an agreement on how to best support southern resident recovery while minimizing economic impact.



In the News....

Type B killer whales in Antartica travel north

Killer whales are not generally considered a migratory species, but recent findings published by John Durban and Robert Pitman of the US National Marine Fisheries Service have proven otherwise. In early 2009, researchers fitted 12 Antarctic type-B killer whales with satellite transmitters. Type B whales inhabit inshore waters near the pack ice where they feed on seals and penguins.  They also have a distinctive large eyepatch that is much larger than any other type of killer whale anywhere in the world.  Unfortunately half the tags stopped working after 3 weeks, but the remaining six revealed completely unexpected information! 

The whales made a 10,000km beeline for warm water, cruising at up to 10 km/hr across the southwest Atlantic east of the Falkland Islands to the subtropical waters off Uruguay and Brazil.  The scientific community knows very little about the long haul movements of killer whales, and this study offers the first ever evidence of long distance migration by killer whales. 

What is causing these whales to swim north and seek out warmer waters?  Each of the tagged killer whales swam north alone at different times between early February and late April, which suggests these northbound expeditions were not annual migrations for feeding or breeding. The speed and duration of the voyages did not leave enough time for prolonged foraging and would have been too demanding for a newborn calf. In fact, one whale returned to Antarctica after travelling 9,400km in just 42 days!

Durban and Pitman suspect that killer whales move into warmer waters in order to shed a layer of skin along with an encrustation of diatoms. Because Antarctic killer whales live in sub-zero waters where the surface temperature lingers around -2°C, replacing and repairing outer skin can be dangerous with whales potentially freezing to death. Comparatively, the waters off Uruguay and Brazil where the whales were tracked was a comfortable 20.9°C to 24.2°C.

News article: Vancouver Sun 

Type B
Photo: John Durban


A rare sighting - Two sea turtles in one week!

Sea Turtles… okay so they are not a whale, but this is pretty unique so we thought it warranted a short update. 
Many people are not aware that sea turtles can be found in BC waters, but occasionally we do get visits from these ancient marine reptiles.  Giant leatherback sea turtles occur here naturally, but are critically endangered so very few people are lucky enough to spot one in the first place.  In the summer months, leatherbacks migrate from their tropical nesting sites to feed on jellies in higher Pacific latitudes, and they have a number of physiological adaptations to survive in cold water.  While leatherback numbers are very low, the BC Cetacean Sightings Network does get 2 or 3 sightings each year.

Surprisingly, in one week at the end of November, two sea turtles washed up on beaches in Pacific Rim National Park.  Neither turtle was a leatherback, but rather an olive ridley and a green sea turtle.  While olive ridleys and greens have been found in the Pacific Northwest, they do not have cold water adaptations that leatherbacks have to survive in our cold waters.  These “incidental” turtles may have ended up out of their range by following food, warm currents, or simply getting lost during their migration.  Because they are not accustomed to the cold water, the turtles go into “cold-shock” and their metabolic and motor activities become severely depressed.  This puts them in a precarious position to avoid threats such as boats and predators, and can result in injuries causing death.  

Olive Ridley
A female, sub-adult olive ridley sea turtle was found on November 22, 2011 washed up on Long Beach near Tofino.  This is the first documented sighting of an olive ridley in BC!  They have been seen in Washington and Alaska, so scientists have assumed they must pass through BC from time to time.  Parks Canada and DFO Marine Mammal Response Network officials transported the turtle to the Vancouver Aquarium for treatment and further examination.  Despite efforts to re-hydrate the turtle and gently warm her body temperature, she was pronounced dead the next morning.  A necropsy revealed that she died of blunt force trauma from an unknown source which occurred after severe cold shock had set in.  Two small pieces of hard plastic were also found in her stomach- a reminder that marine debris is a serious threat to marine animals. 

Eight days later on November 30, 2011, a sub-adult male green sea turtle were found off Combers Beach in Pacific Rim National Park.  Parks staff was notified and the turtle was transported to the Aquarium with the help of DFO.  This turtle appeared to be in better shape than the olive ridley, with no obvious external injuries.  Unfortunately, this turtle did not survive the cold shock either and was pronounced dead on Dec. 5th.

Sea turtles worldwide face serious threats to their survival.  Habitat destruction and illegal harvesting of eggs and turtles still occur despite efforts to protect nesting beaches.  Entanglement in fishing gear, pollution, and especially ingestion of marine debris has all lead to dramatic decline in sea turtle populations.  You can directly participate in sea turtle conservation by reporting any sightings of sea turtles and cetaceans to the Vancouver Aquarium’s BC Cetacean Sightings Network at 1-866-I SAW ONE.  Reports of dead, injured, and distressed marine mammals and sea turtles should be reported to the Marine Mammal Response Network at 1-800-465-4336. 


Photo: Parks Canada