Banner year for Bigg’s killer whales in Salish Sea, with sighting records smashed

Click to play video: 'Record number of Bigg’s Killer Whale sightings in 2023'
Record number of Bigg’s Killer Whale sightings in 2023
WATCH: Whale watching organizations are reporting a record number of Bigg's Killer Whale sightings in the Salish Sea this year. As Kylie Stanton reports, this record comes while another whale population is struggling – Nov 8, 2023

It’s been another banner year for the Bigg’s killer whale, with previous sighting records in the Salish Sea smashed in 2023.

According to the Pacific Whale Watch Association and Orca Behavior Institute, there were 1,270 unique sightings of the mammal-hunting killer whales between January and the end of October, compared with the previous record of 1,220 unique sightings set in 2022 — in 12 months, not 10.

“We are, knock on wood, going on a pretty big sighting streak. They’ve been seen every single day in the Salish Sea since March 12, believe it or not,” Erin Gless, director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, said in an interview.

“The bar is going to be set pretty high as we go into 2024.”

Click to play video: 'Rare video shows orcas attacking adult gray whales'
Rare video shows orcas attacking adult gray whales

Bigg’s killer whales eat mammals, including sea lions, seals and porpoises.

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Previously referred to as “transients,” Gless said they are more stationary than ever — prompting the movement to popularize the name, “Bigg’s killer whale.” Michael Bigg was one of the world’s leading authorities on killer whale research and among the first to distinguish between salmon-eating orcas and mammal-eating orcas. He died in 1990.

“We’re very lucky that in B.C. right now, we have a stable supply of seals and sea lions. That wasn’t always the case,” Gless said.

“Back in up until the ’70s, really, B.C. actually had a bounty program where they would pay people to go out and hunt seals and sea lions. Fortunately, seals and sea lions are now protected and they’ve had a chance to kind of recover, and that has lured all of these Bigg’s killer whales into our area.”

Click to play video: 'Orca inbreeding threatens Southern Resident killer whale survival'
Orca inbreeding threatens Southern Resident killer whale survival

The success of the Bigg’s killer whale is a stark contrast from that of its cousin, the endangered southern resident killer whale. That population, which has about 74 members, is on track to have a nearly record-breaking low number of unique sightings this year, with the “collapse of the Fraser River” and its salmon stock the primary driver, Gless added.

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“When we’re not seeing them in these inland B.C. waters, they spend a lot of time on the outer coast, so off the coast of say, Tofino, off the coast of Washington state and Oregon, so there’s probably not a lot of eyes out there to see what they’re doing,” she said.

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of reports of animals this year who just don’t seem to be in good body condition. They seem to be fairly thin.”

Click to play video: 'Cases of orcas attacking boats on the rise'
Cases of orcas attacking boats on the rise

Monika Wieland Shields, director of the Orca Behavior Institute, expressed similar concerns about the southern resident.

“We absolutely think that if we can do the same thing and recover the food source for the southern residents, that their story could turn around just like we’ve seen for the Bigg’s killer whales,” she said. “I definitely still have hope.”

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The Bigg’s are currently roaming the entire Salish Sea, she added — from the inland waters near Campbell River, south through the Strait of Georgia, to the San Juan Islands down into Puget Sound, towards Seattle, and west to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

According to Wieland Shields, 2023 is the ninth year of the past 10 in which the unique sighting record has been broken for the Bigg’s, the only dip having been in 2020, which she believes is likely linked to decreased observation during the pandemic. A unique sighting is not the total number of sightings, but rather the sighting of one particular family group on a particular day.

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