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Orca pod returns to central B.C. coast after 20 years: researchers

A5 pod is seen with a new calf on Jan. 4, 2021. Jared Towers

A group of orcas that hasn’t been seen in 20 years has returned to B.C.’s central coast.

The group, part of the A5 pod, are a part of B.C.’s northern resident killer whale population.

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On Monday, Fisheries and Oceans Canada researcher Jared Towers captured photos of the pod, including a new calf, entering Fife Sound in the Broughton Archipelago.

Towers said the A5 pod is actually split into three matrilineal lines, one of which has made rare appearances area in recent years. Monday’s sighting was of the other two lines — the A23 and A25 matrilines — that haven’t returned to the sound in decades.

This family loves to spend time off in northeastern Vancouver Island, and yet historically, they love spending a lot of time in the archipelago, specifically in the winter,” Towers said.

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“We have lots of sightings, records of this family in that area throughout the 1980s and 1990s. And then around the mid to late 90s, they just stopped using the area and haven’t been documented back there since until just four days ago.”

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Biologist Alexandra Morton linked the whales departure from the region to sonic devices used by the fish farm industry in the 1990s to scare seals away.

The industry strenuously disputes that claim, saying the devices were discontinued in 1997. The whale group was last recorded in the area in 2001.

The researchers have suggested naming the new calf Ne’nakw, which means “returning home” in Kwak’wala.

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Northern resident killer whales are faring better than their endangered southern resident cousins, but remain listed as “threatened” by federal regulators.

As of 2018, Fisheries and Oceans Canada estimated the population to be about 302 orcas.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a response from the B.C. salmon farming industry and to clarify which family groups of the A5 pod have returned. 

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