Killer whales are probably the most well-known species of whale found in British Columbia. There are three ecotypes of killer whales recognized in the province: resident, transient, and offshore (Fisheries and Oceans Canada 2008). Several populations are also recognized by the province (four of which are now red-listed) and by COSEWIC (one is listed as endangered, others are listed as threatened) (see below) (British Columbia Conservation Data Centre 2012, COSEWIC 2008). Although all populations/ecotypes are presently treated as a single species, these may be split into separate species or subspecies following taxonomic review (IUCN 2010).
The killer whale, or orca, is the largest member of the dolphin family. Its size, striking black and white colouring, and tall dorsal fin are unmistakable. Males reach
lengths of 8 or 9 metres and weigh up to 5 tonnes. Females are smaller at 7 metres
and 4 tonnes. Killer whales are mainly black above and white below, with an oval white patch behind each eye. In adult males, the paddle-shaped flippers are very large and the tips of the tail flukes curl down. The first sight of a killer whale is usually its dorsal fin. In fully grown males, this fin sticks straight up, often as high as 1.8 metres. In females and young whales, the fin is curved and less than one metre high. Behind every dorsal fin there is a gray area called a saddle patch. The shape of the dorsal fin and the saddle patch, as well as natural nicks and scars on them, are unique to each killer whale. By photographing the dorsal fin of killer whales, researchers can tell individual whales apart.
Killer whales are one of the most exciting whales to watch. Whether they are travelling, resting, hunting, beach rubbing, or playing with each other, there is always plenty to see. B.C.’s resident killer whales are especially interesting because we know so much about them. In 1972, researchers began taking pictures of individual whales. From these photos, and by watching who travelled with whom, they learned that family life centres around females, and that a mother and her calves stay together for life. Even when they’re fully grown, sons and daughters never stray far from their mothers. Some killer whales, particularly females, can live as long as humans. Using all this information, researchers have put together family trees for all of B.C.’s resident killer whales. Family members within a pod are each identified by a letter and a number. This is very handy for researchers and whalewatchers. By identifying one whale in a group, they can often tell which family they are looking at.
Sound is very important to killer whales. Using air trapped in their blowholes, they produce high-pitched squeals, squawks and screams that often sound like a squeaky door hinge. Each family group of whales has its own set of unique sounds, or discrete calls, which together form its dialect. Some dialects are so distinctive that even an inexperienced listener can tell them apart. Researchers believe that the more similar the dialects between two pods, the closer they are related. Killer whales also make clicking sounds which they bounce off objects in the water. This is a type of natural sonar called echolocation and is very useful when searching for food or navigating in murky water. Little is known about mating behaviour in wild killer whales. Females usually have their first calf at age 14 or 15 after a 17-month pregnancy — one of the longest of all whales. Newborn calves are 2.5 metres long and 200 kg, and drink their mother’s fat-rich milk for up to a year.
Resident killer whales eat mainly fish. Their dorsal fins tend to be rounded at the top. They live in family groups of 5 to 50 whales, called pods. There are 19 pods of resident killer whales in B.C., adding up to about 300 animals. Transient killer whales eat marine mammals, such as seals, sea lions and porpoises. Their dorsal fins are more pointed. They usually travel in small groups of two to four animals who may or may not be related to each other. What may be a third type of killer whale has been discovered in recent years. Researchers call them offshore killer whales, but since they have not been seen very often, very little is known about them. They are unlike residents and transients in a number of ways. There are slight physical differences, they usually travel in groups of 25 or more, they are seldom seen in protected coastal waters, and their vocalizations are unlike those of residents or transients.
Killer Whales can tolerate wide ranges of salinity, temperature and turbidity (COSEWIC 2008) and are found in nearshore and pelagic habitats. Their overall distribution appears to be determined mainly by their prey species.
Killer whales are found in all the world’s
oceans, from polar to tropical seas. They
seem to be most common in cold water
regions, such as Iceland, Norway, Japan,
Antarctica and the northeastern Pacific coast
from Washington State to the Bering Sea.
British Columbia is one of the best places in
the world to see wild killer whales.
Distribution in British Columbia
In the summer, residents are often seen in certain areas. The northern community of resident killer whales lives off northern Vancouver Island and the mainland coast as far north as southeast Alaska. Northern residents often visit Johnstone Strait off northeastern Vancouver Island. The southern community of residents is found off southern Vancouver Island. Haro Strait and the Strait of Juan de Fuca are good places to view them. Northern and southern residents are sometimes seen in winter, but can vanish for months at a time. At least 218 transient killer whales are known to roam the coastal waters of B.C. and southeast Alaska. Transient killer whales are not predictable; they can be seen anywhere, anytime. Transient and resident killer whales do not mix with each other. So far, most offshore killer whales have been seen near the Queen Charlotte Islands. But they can turn up anywhere. In 1992, a group of 65 offshores surprised researchers and whalewatchers near Victoria.
Killer whales were once hated in B.C. They were considered ferocious and a nuisance. Fishermen complained that they were eating
all the salmon, and often shot them on sight. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of killer whales were caught alive in B.C.
and Washington State waters for display in aquariums. Millions of people were able to see for themselves that killer whales did not
match their fearsome reputation. Today, wild killer whales are the star attraction of B.C.’s growing whalewatching industry. Every year, thousands of tourists take whalewatching trips into prime killer whale areas such as Johnstone Strait off northeastern Vancouver Island and Haro Strait near Victoria. Killer whales can also be seen from land anywhere along the coast. In 1994, six killer whales even came into the busy harbour of the city of Vancouver! Just as we begin to understand the natural history of B.C.’s killer whales, they face new threats from human activity. Pollution, global overfishing, and increasing boat traffic are all ongoing concerns. Continuing
long-term study will lead to a better understanding of B.C.’s killer whales and their habitat needs.
COSEWIC (2008) provides the following information for our BC Killer Whale populations as of 2008: “ There were 70 Southern Residents in 1974 and 132 Northern Residents in 1975, and in 2006 there were 85 and 244, respectively. The population of Northern Residents has continued to increase fairly steadily since monitoring began in the mid-1970s, whereas that of Southern Residents, while it also increased fairly steadily through the mid-1990s, has been mostly declining since then. Both populations have shown annual increases or declines of up to ~3% for several years in a row. The West Coast Transient population has been increasing in recent years and consisted of an estimated 243 whales in 2006. The Offshore population is estimated at more than 288 whales, although Offshore Killer Whales have not been encountered frequently enough to provide trend data."
Recently published research (2011) on Killer Whales has now confirmed predation by the offshore population in BC on sharks--specifically the Pacific sleeper shark (Somniosus pacificus). Read more here.
Research into the foraging areas of Killer Whales and protected areas (voluntary reserves) in BC has shown that this species will restrict its feeding activities to the reserve area, relying on a fraction of their total home range. Williams et al. 2009 say: “Frequently, >50% of this small population was aggregated in the restricted and heavily trafficked waterway of Johnstone Strait...The whales’ high reliance on a trivial fraction of their range means that opportunities are routine for one stochastic, catastrophic event to cause population decline." Read more here.
Read the Vancouver Aquarium's fact sheet on the Killler Whale, including links to identification catalogues.
References for the Introduction and Additional Notes:
B.C. Conservation Data Centre. 2010. BC Species and Ecosystems Explorer. B.C. Minist. of Environ. Victoria, B.C. Available Online.
COSEWIC. 2008. COSEWIC assessment and update status report on the Killer Whale Orcinus orca, Southern Resident population, Northern Resident population, West Coast Transient population, Offshore population and Northwest Atlantic / Eastern Arctic population, in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Ottawa. Available Online.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2008. Recovery Strategy for the Northern and Southern Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in Canada. Species At Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa. Available Online.
Williams, Rob, David Lusseau and Phil Hammond. (2009) The role of social aggregations and protected areas in killer whale conservation: the mixed blessing of critical habitat. Biological Conservation 142:709-719. Available online.
Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2021. E-Fauna BC:
Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab
for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British
Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed:
2022-12-03 12:27:26 PM]
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