Baby L124 photographed with mom, L77, about five miles from Vancouver Island’s shoreline near Swiftsure Bank. (Submitted/Mark Malleson)

‘Superpod’ of killer whales spotted off Vancouver Island

Questions of health, food supply still plague dwindling southern resident killer whale population

After the devastating news of three resident orca deaths, a sighting of a “superpod” with two healthy-looking calves off the coast of Vancouver Island could be a positive sign.

The mammal-eating transient pods, or “Bigg’s orcas,” who can be spotted hunting along the coast between Alaska and California, have been enjoying the pinniped bounty of the Salish Sea this summer, providing Islanders with incredible sightings and share-worthy images of the orcas’ open saddle patches and rounded dorsal fins splashing through harbours and straits.

But southern residents – their smaller, echolocating, salmon-eating cousins, whose critical habitat spans the southern Strait of Georgia, Haro Strait and Juan de Fuca Strait – have been noticeably absent, and three were declared dead in early August after showing signs of malnutrition, plunging the total population to just 73.

READ ALSO: Three southern resident killer whales declared dead plunging population to 73

On Sunday, Mark Malleson encountered a resident orca superpod – a grouping with members of all three pods present –off the coast of Vancouver Island near Swiftsure Bank.

“I didn’t see them all, they were so spread out, but there was certainly representatives of all the [pods] there and we saw the two new calves,” he said. “That was my first time seeing the calves, I was quite excited to finally lay my eyes on them.”

Baby girl J56 with her mom, J31 hunted with the superpod of resident orcas spotted near Vancouver Island on Sunday. The Southern Residents have been noticeably absent from their critical habitat this summer and were seen as far down the coast as California. (Submitted/Mark Malleson)

Malleson, a photographer and research assistant with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Washington-based Center for Whale Research, was on the water with colleague Joe Zelweitro, searching for a humpback whales seen off Sombrio Point a few days earlier.

After coming across a concentration of humpbacks, they headed west towards Swiftsure Bank, eventually, just five miles from the shore, they spotted the orcas hunting.

“It was great seeing them. They seemed very animated,” he said.

READ ALSO: Aerial photos reveal good and bad news about B.C.’s endangered killer whales

READ ALSO: Bigg’s orcas in the Salish Sea point to shifting habitat of resident killer whales

Lauren McWhinnie, orca researcher and University of Victoria professor, said the superpod sighting may indicate mating amongst the pods. In matriarchal orca society, males stay with their mothers. Interaction with other pods is necessary for breeding.

“When we see interactions with all three pods present, that’s a sign for hope,” she said.

But McWhinnie noted a number of pregnant resident whales have been unable to carry their babies to term, and even those born remain vulnerable until at least two years old.

The calves spotted Sunday – L124 and J56 – are both under one year.

READ ALSO: Killer whale pushing dead calf gets support from her pod

“It is a positive sign that the two calves have made it this far,” she said. “But we are, by no means, out of the woods yet.”

The residents’ summer absence isn’t totally unusual – they have been showing up in their critical habitat more frequently in late summer and early fall for the last few years – but this year was a significant change, she said.

“We’ve never had them this absent from the Salish Sea before in terms of documented history. The fact that they aren’t here is probably indicative that there’s just not the fish here to support them.”



nina.grossman@blackpress.ca

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Just Posted

Student artwork on display in ‘Well Lit’ installation

Thoughtful Place Design, 49th Parallel, and Festival of Lights came together to showcase student art

Ladysmith set to star in new Syfy series: Resident Alien

Ladysmith will play the role of Patience, Colorado in the series

Ladysmith wins ‘Brownie’ Reach Out award for communication of Waterfront Plan

The Town of Ladysmith has received national recognition for the successful public… Continue reading

Nanaimo Regional General Hospital raising funds for new surgical suite

The new suite will reduce endoscopy wait times for residents from Ladysmith to Bowser

Belair Street development ready for next steps following public hearing

Fred Green’s Belair Street development cleared another hurdle at a Town of Ladysmith public hearing

VIDEO: Boys help rescue Cariboo bear cub

The cub, weighing just 24lbs, has been taken to wildlife sanctuary in Northwest B.C. for the winter

‘Things haven’t changed enough:’ Ecole Polytechnique anniversary prompts reflection

Fourteen women were fatally shot by a gunman at the Montreal school on Dec. 6, 1989

Bear raids freezer, gorges on Island family’s Christmas baking

Hungry bruin virtually ignored meat and fish, focused, instead, on the sweets

B.C. pharmaceutical company’s stocks double in value after successful lupus drug trial

More than 40 per cent of patients using voclosporin saw improvements in kidney function

Second warning on romaine lettuce from California region as another E. coli case reported

Two cases of E. coli have been reported in relation to the illness in the U.S.

Residents in B.C. city could face 133% tax hike in ‘worst case’ lawsuit outcome: report

An average home could see a tax increase of $2,164 in one year

B.C. Transit finds 28 used fareboxes online, saves $300,000

‘Someone joked maybe we can buy used fareboxes on eBay,’ CEO says

Many of Canada’s working poor can’t afford lawyers, don’t qualify for legal aid

One lawyer says many people earn too much to qualify for legal aid, but not enough to really live on

Economy lost 71,200 jobs in November, unemployment rate climbs to 5.9%

Jobless rate is at its highest since August 2018, when it hit 6%

Most Read