Southern Resident Killer Whales
KILLER WHALES (ORCAS) Orcinus orca
Mature at 12 to 14 years of age
Dorsal fins 2m
Mature at 14 to 15 years of age
Gestation period around 16 months
Dorsal fins 1m
Weight 180 kg
Individuals are identified by white markings behind their dorsal fins known as saddle patches. Their usual cruising speed is around 2 – 4 knots (4-7 km/h) but they can achieve speeds of 17 knots (30 km/h) or more. They can travel distances of 100 miles or more in a 24 hour period. Residents have been spotted as far south as California during the off-season.
TRANSIENT KILLER WHALES
Although visually similar to the SRKW’s, these animals are genetically distinct. Transients inspired the moniker “killer whales” because they feed on seals, sea lions, porpoise and even other whales. These whales don’t form pods because their social system is much different than the SRKW’s. They live in small groups and can be found individually. A group of transients may contain various combinations such as a bull, cow and a calf ; a cow and her offspring, or several adult females etc. Males are often solitary and seldom seen travelling with other males exclusively. The offspring generally leave the group after the birth of a younger sibling or upon reaching adolescence. They sometimes form large temporary hunting groups of 20 or more animals. Although they share the same waters, transient and resident whales do not breed, socialize or otherwise interact with each other.
True to their name, these whales are rarely seen inside the protected waters surrounding Victoria. This species was only identified in the 1980’s so research is ongoing. It is known that there are around 200 animals and that they’re usually seen in groups of 20 plus. Recent studies prove that they eat sharks and other fish but mammal predation hasn’t been ruled out. Research is especially difficult because these whales seem to prefer the offshore waters around the edge of the continental shelf.
In 1998 we encountered a large group of westbound offshores in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. They may eat sharks but they were certainly acting more like residents than transients that day. They were slightly smaller animals and were communicating and socializing like the residents. The group we encountered were curious, playful and boisterous. At least 10 animals approached the boat – some making eye contact – when we stopped. Not knowing whether we were with the leaders or trailers, we began to slowly pull ahead and were amazed to see them riding the stern wash in a V formation! When one tired of the game another would take it’s place!
MINKE WHALES (BALAEANOPTERA ACUTOROSTRATA ACUTOROSTRATA)
These shy baleen whales are also resident to our local waters. Averaging 10m and weighing around 10,000kg, Minkes are one of the smallest baleen whales. They can be found alone or in small groups and favour banks, bays and estuaries. They swim at 6-8 knots (11-15km/h) but can achieve speeds of 30 knots (55 km/h) and sometimes breach (leap) out of the water. The average Minke dive is around 8 minutes but can last up to 20 minutes. Their life span is around 50 years.
HUMPBACK WHALES (Megaptera novaeangliae)
Humpbacks are giant baleen whales measuring 12-16m long and weighing approximately 36,000 kg. Even newborns are 5m! This species can be seen singly or in small groups. Humpbacks are a migratory animal and usually swim slowly at 4-5 knots (7-9 km/h). Known as the “singing” whale, the song of the male humpback is one of the most complex in the animal world. Humpback behaviour includes breaching, spy hopping, rolling on the surface as well as tail and fin slapping. These whales feed individually by charging through schools of small fish but will co-operate in predation groups by “bubble netting” to force small fish to the surface. They can stay submerged for 10 – 20 minutes. The life span of a humpback whale is between 45 to 100 years.
GRAY WHALES (Eschrichtius robustus)
Normally a coastal migratory whale, Gray whales sometimes spend extended periods in our local waters. There are an estimated 35-50 “resident” gray whales that spend the summer off the coast of Vancouver Island. These large baleen whales reach lengths of 15m and weigh 33,000kg. Newborns are 5m. Their life span is about 70 years.
Gray whales have one of the longest mammal migrations on earth, covering 16,000 – 22,400 km in a round trip. They travel at 2 – 5 knots (4 – 8 km/h) while migrating but can reach speeds of 10 knots (18 km/h). Grays breach and spy hop and are curious enough to occasionally approach boats.
DALL’S PORPOISE (Phocoenoides dalli)
These shiny black and white speed demons reach speeds of 20 knots (55 km/h)! Groups of 2 to 20 are commonly seen bow riding with vessels but seem to lose interest in boats travelling under 11 knots (20 km/h). Size is up to 2.2m and 218 kg. Newborns are 1m. They live for 15 years.
HARBOUR PORPOISE (Phocoena phocoena)
Harbour porpoise are shy creatures that do not bow ride. The smallest cetacean in Canadian waters, they are 1.9m and weigh 65kg. Newborns are only 1m. They are usually found in small groups of 5 or so animals but groups of 50 or more can sometimes be seen. Harbour Porpoise have a 13 year life span.
PACIFIC WHITE-SIDED DOLPHIN (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens)
These aerial acrobats prefer offshore waters but are sometimes seen in our local straits. Adults are 2.5m, 135kg and reach speeds of 15 knots (28 km/h) when active. They are usually found in large groups that number between 50 to 1000 or more animals. White-sides live for 45 years.
STELLAR SEA LIONS (Eumetopias jubatus)
Stellar sea lions are more likely to growl and roar than bark. Males are 3m, weigh 998kg and live around 20 years. Females are smaller at 2.5m and 270kg but have a 30 year life span. Stellars can be curious animals and have been known to check out divers. Considered a nuisance by some fisherman, these animals fish in shallow waters that are usually within 24km of shore.
CALIFORNIA SEA LIONS (Zalophus californianus)
Smaller and darker than the Stellars, males are 2.5m and 405 kg. Females are 1.7m and 113 kg. They have a loud honking bark and are commonly hauled out on wharves and log booms in large numbers. They feed on a variety of fish and can remain submerged for 20 minutes. They live for upwards of 17 years.
NORTHERN ELEPHANT SEAL (Mirounga angustirostris)
Once hunted to the brink of extinction, the population of the Northern Elephant Seals is recovering. This is the largest pinniped (seals and sea lions) in the northern hemisphere. Males are 6m and 1,995kg while the smaller females are 3m and 998kg.
These carnivores spend most of their lives at sea. They dive continuously for weeks, reaching depths of 1500m and can stay underwater for 45 minutes. They prefer resting vertically in the water to hauling out on shore but must come ashore once a year for a full epidermal moult. Elephant seals have a 22 year life span.
PACIFIC HARBOUR SEAL (Phoca vitulina richardsi)
The Pacific Northwest has one of the densest harbour seal populations on earth. Both males and females are around 1.8m and 113 kg. Males live for 20 years while females have a 30 year life span. Group size can range from several individuals to 500 or more. Harbour seals are “homesteaders” and usually don’t migrate over long distances. They haul out on land and sometimes rest on the ocean floor next to these sites. They are often seen swimming with their heads out of the water at speeds of 4.3 knots (5 km/h) but can reach pursuit speeds of 12.5 knots (14.5 km/h). They also swim underwater, usually for 5-8 minutes, but can remain submerged for 20 minutes.
SEA OTTER (Enhydra lutris)
At 1.5m and 36 kg, sea otters are the smallest marine mammal. Their diet consists of urchins, mussels and other invertebrates which they prefer to eat while floating on their backs. Sea otters will use rocks as tools to loosen and open food selections. They prefer open waters and often raft together in large groups of various ages and sexes. Hunted to the edge of extinction for their valuable pelts, sea otter populations have been slow to recover. Sea otters live for 15 years.
RIVER OTTER (Lutra canadensis pacifica)
Although most abundant along the coast, river otters can also be found inland around rivers and lakes. They are very comfortable on shore, nesting in logs and other burrows, and are usually seen in single family groups. Offspring stay in the nest for 10 to 12 weeks before venturing out. They are 1.3m, 13.5kg and live for 16 years.
The Pacific Northwest hosts an amazing array of marine birds. Although too numerous to list here, West Coast birds include: Golden & Bald Eagles, Turkey Vultures, Osprey, Peregrine Falcons, Great Blue Herons, Belted Kingfishers, Black Oystercatchers, Surf Scoters, Tufted Puffins, Pigeon Guillemots, Rhinoceros Auklets and Brown Pelicans. There are several varieties of cormorants, gulls, terns, swans, geese, grebes, mergansers, scaup and golden eye.