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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Oliver woman reflects on prestigious win at Westminster dog show

“Polly” the Scottish deerhound was crowned best in breed and reserve best hound.

Fire consumes unit at Osoyoos hotel

Fire chief proud of crew’s quick response, says result could have been a lot worse.

Don’t miss Princeton’s free Family Day event

You needn’t look far to find a free and fun event to… Continue reading

CHIME finds four days of noise, twelve days of silence from space

The radio telescope picked up the first recorded pattern in radio signals from space

Mink farm once operated in Summerland

From 1967 to 1973, the Nielsen family raised mink

Kelowna’s Family YMCA opens doors on Family Day

The entire day was free for the community

Canucks acquire forward Tyler Toffoli from Kings in push for playoffs

Vancouver sends Schaller, Madden, pick to L.A.

RCMP report woman arrested after ramming police cruiser

Suspect wanted for crimes allegedly committed in Kelowna, Salmon Arm and 100 Mile House

New highway proposed between Alberta and B.C.

The route would connect Red Deer to Kamloops

Wet’suwet’en and B.C. government have been talking Aboriginal title for a year

Coastal GasLink says it has agreements with all 20 elected First Nations councils along the 670-kilometre route

Trudeau tightlipped on plan to end protests ‘quickly and peacefully’

The prime minister, who cancelled a two-day trip to Barbados this week to deal with the crisis at home

B.C. budget expected to stay the course as economic growth moderates

Finance minister said ICBC costs have affected budget

Canadian standards for coronavirus protection to be reviewed, health agency says

The protocols set out how health workers should protect themselves and their patients

Kelowna RCMP arrest alleged impaired driver

The driver is facing potential charges after power pole collision

Most Read