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

Have you seen missing Duncan teen Cera Qwulshemut?

15-year-old First Nations girl missing from in front of Shoppers Drug Mart

Woman charged with numerous drug offenses

Police make arrest on an outstanding warrant dating back to earlier raid on Chemainus property

Saltair Marine’s ‘Silver Bullet’ found by RCMP months after reported theft

The $20,000 vessel was stolen from the Ladysmith Marina back in July

Two additional features for Chemainus Public Market unveiled

Old-fashioned ice cream parlour and arcade big part of the plans

Finalists announced for Golden Brush Awards

Event taking place Saturday, Oct. 26

Scheer, Trudeau, Singh haggle over potential minority government outcome

If you believe the polls, it appears the Liberals and Conservatives are neck-and-neck

Canucks beat Stanley Cup champs 4-3 in a shootout

Leivo nets winner, Vancouver dumps St. Louis for fourth straight win

Campbell River homicide suspects arrested in Vancouver

Two men remain in custody, but have not been charged

‘The more you test, the more you find’: Beef recalls a sign of success, experts say

Despite appearances, experts say a recent rise in major recalls is not a sign of food supply problems

With $4M investment, Camosun College offers first sonography program on Vancouver Island

Starting in May 2020 students from Vancouver Island can pursue a career in sonography

Scooter rider suffers life-threatening injuries in crash in Nanaimo

One person airlifted to hospital in Victoria after collision on Wall Street on Thursday

Elizabeth May confirms plan to eliminate fish farming in open ocean pens

Green Party leader stops in Qualicum Beach as part of Island campaign

STRIKE: WFP and USW are back at the table for mediation

“No further updates until either an agreement is reached or one party or the other breaks off talks”

Green Party leader Elizabeth May rolls through Vancouver Island to boost a party stronghold

Mocks media, evokes Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and promises change

Most Read