Southern Resident Killer Whales

Our Southern Resident Killer Whales have a 49% chance of extinction in the next 100 years, and the Galiano Conservancy is taking action! Our new project focuses on the Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) and other at risk Cetaceans (whales, dolphins & porpoises).

Orcas or Killer Whales?

Orcas, or killer whales (the names are interchangeable), are found throughout the world’s oceans, and after humans, are the second most widespread mammal on Earth! Although all technically the same species (Orcinus orca), there are numerous distinct populations, or ‘ecotypes’ of killer whales globally that can be distinguished from other ecotypes by their diet, morphology, and culture. That’s right, culture! Biologists are now expanding the definition of culture (socially transmitted behaviours) to include other animal groups than just humans.

There are three orca ecotypes living off BC’s coast: Offshore Killer Whales, Transient Killer Whales and Resident Killer Whales. Like the name implies, offshore killer whales are rarely sighted near land, and as a result, are less studied than other ecotypes. Transient, or Bigg’s Killer Whales are mammal hunters, and forage broadly up and down the North American coast preying on seals, sea lions, and other whales (observations by sailers of groups of orcas hunting larger whales earned them the name “whale killer”, which later became “killer whale”). Unlike transient orcas, resident killer whales hunt only fish, primarily Chinook Salmon. Orcas pass their culture (e.g., foraging strategies, dialects, and dietary preferences) on to younger generations by living in tight-knit family groups. Among resident orcas, these family groups are called matrilines and consist of a head female, her offspring, and her daughters’ offspring, which all stay together for life.

What are Southern Resident Orcas?

Resident orcas are further subdivided into two geographically distinct breeding populations: Northern Resident Killer Whales, which typically range from northern Vancouver Island to Haida Gwaii, and Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) which live primarily in the Salish Sea, but range northern California to as far north as Haida Gwaii. All residents’ diet primarily consists of salmon. There are three pods that make up the Southern Resident population: J pod, K pod, and L pod. Each pod consists of several matrilines.

Male and female orcas are dimorphic, meaning they look different from each other. The males are much bigger, and have a long, slightly forward slanting dorsal fin, with a wavy back edge. The females are smaller and have a dorsal fin with a rounded top. The males and females both look different to other ecotypes living in British Columbian waters. Keep an eye out next time you are on the water to see if you have spotted a Southern Resident Killer Whale or another ecotype! 

Why are we concerned about the future of these whales?

We have no historic data about the size of the Southern Resident Orca population before the 1960s, however most researchers estimate there were likely 150-200 individuals at the start of the 20th century. Perceptions of these marine mammals were very different in the early 1900s. People thought they were dangerous, and programs to cull the whales were established. Many of them suffered from bullet wounds. The situation was made more critical in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when 49 whales were captured for the aquarium trade. Populations have been fluctuating ever since, but have been very low for the last couple of decades. The Southern Resident Orca population is listed as endangered by the Committee of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), and we currently have the smallest population since 1973, consisting of 73 individuals in 2019. Unfortunately, Individual L41, called Mega, has been last seen on August 11th 2019 by Ken Balcomb, Founder and Senior Scientist at the Centre for Whale Research and is reported missing since January 2020.

Although the aquarium trade was responsible for the most dramatic SRKW population decline, many factors are now preventing their population growth. Current threats include persistent organic pollutants (POPs), chemical pollutants, bacteria, exotic species, noise pollution, increased vessel traffic creating more strikes and noise underwater, oil spills, entanglement, and most critically, low salmon stocks mainly through fishing, disease and habitat loss.

Learn more about Orcas & boating here.

What is the Galiano Conservancy doing to help Cetacean in the Salish Sea?

The main food source of the Southern Resident Orcas is Chinook Salmon, which provides >80% of their diet. The other portion is largely made up of Chum Salmon. Critical habitat for these salmon are eelgrass meadows and kelp beds off our coasts. Eelgrass meadows are in waters as shallow as the low tide mark up to 6m depth, meaning that they are very susceptible to destruction. Coastal development, sediment, pollution, trampling, and boat anchors are all threats to eelgrass. Kelp lays deeper, and is susceptible to threats of its own, including sea urchins, over- harvesting, sediment influx, and climate change.

Last summer, the Galiano Conservancy Association and partnering conservancies on North Pender, South Pender, Saturna, and Valdes Islands began a long term kelp and eelgrass monitoring program, with the goal of determining how beds are changing through time. The survey methods were taught by the Mayne Island Conservancy, who established their own monitoring program over a decade ago. 

With the collaborating groups, we are also launching a public education campaign directed at boaters and citizens about the importance of being whale wise while boating and avoiding eelgrass meadows while anchoring your boat.

Click here to learn more about Cetaceans!

Show your support for Salish Sea Cetaceans!

If you would like to order one of our fun Whale Stickers, send us an email at oceans@galianoconservancy.ca
All proceeds go back into the Whale Project!

How can I help protect Cetaceans in the Salish Sea, especially SRKW? 

  • Join local Streamkeepers to protect & enhance wild salmon habitats.
  • Avoid anchoring in eelgrass meadows – which are important chinook habitat.
  • Join your local beach clean up.
  • Eat sustainably sourced (not farmed) seafood & always follow fishing regulations.
  • Let your MP know that orca welfare and environmental protection are important to you, and the changes you would like them to make.
  • Slow down as soon as you spot a fin, tail, or spout to reduce your underwater noise.
  • Report boating infractions by calling 1-800-465-4336.
  • Use natural cleaning & beauty products to reduce ocean impacts (and your own health).
  • Reduce your use of single-use plastics and avoid purchasing products with toxic contaminants such as PBDEs (Polybrominated diphenyl ethers – used as flame retardants) and others.

We could not make projects like this happen without your support! Consider making a donation to the Conservancy today, or email oceans@galianoconservancy.ca for information on volunteer opportunities with us and our partners!

References and Further Reading

Boater interactions with wildlife and habitat

https://www.pac.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/fm-gp/maps-cartes/srkw-ers/boating-around-kws-nav-prox-eps-eng.pdf

https://mersociety.org/seeablowgoslow

https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/species-risk-public-registry/recovery-strategies/northern-southern-killer-whales-2018.html

http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/species-especes/profiles-profils/killerWhalesouth-PAC-NE-epaulardsud-eng.html

https://www.whaleresearch.com/orca-population

https://www.epa.gov/salish-sea/southern-resident-killer-whales

http://www.wwf.ca/conservation/oceans/killerwhales/

http://www.orcanetwork.org/Main/index.php?categories_file=Births%20and%20Deaths

https://www.crd.bc.ca/education/our-environment/wildlife-plants/marine-species/kelp

https://www.psf.ca/blog/protecting-kelp-salmon

https://www.crd.bc.ca/education/our-environment/wildlife-plants/marine-species/eelgrass