Langara Fishing Adventures

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201-4440 Cowley Crescent
Richmond, BC
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Whale Watching: Killer Whales

Killer Whales at Langara Island

by John Ford and Graeme Ellis, Pacific Biological Station

Killer whales are one of the true icons of the wild British Columbia coast, and the waters surrounding Langara Island offer some of the best opportunities to observe this fascinating species.

For over 10 years, Langara Fishing Adventures has supported annual field studies of whales by researchers with the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre and the Pacific Biological Station. These studies have helped shed light on the unusual - even bizarre - natural history of this remarkable predator.

Many visitors to Langara Island may not realize that killer whales in these waters are not all the same.

Although considered to belong to a single species, Orcinus orca, our studies have revealed that there are three very distinct and independent types of killer whales on the BC coast. The ecology of these populations - their movement patterns, diet, behaviours, and social organization - differ in major ways, and hence they are called different "ecotypes".

Groups of killer whales at Langara can potentially belong to any of these three ecotypes, each of which travels apart from the others and is genetically distinct.

Transient Killer Whales

Probably the most common ecotype of killer whale seen at Langara are known as "transients".

These whales tend to travel in small groups of 6 or less, often very close to shore. Transients are mammal-hunting specialists - they make their living by foraging around rocky reefs for harbour seals and sea lions, or further offshore for Dall's porpoises or Pacific white-sided dolphins.

In over 25 years of study, we have never seen transient killer whales take a fish. Only warm-blooded prey seems to be of interest to them, and this includes occasional sea birds and, rarely, land mammals such as deer, which often swim between islands.

Transients range widely on the coast, from Alaska to California. Although they are found in BC waters throughout the year, their appearance is sporadic and unpredictable.

Our photo-identification studies have identified over 200 transient killer whales in BC waters, and many of these frequent the waters of Langara Island. Different groups of transients will mix and travel together, but they never associate with the other two ecotypes.

Resident Killer Whales

The second most common ecotype are referred to as "residents", because they tend to be found reliably in predictable coastal locations during the summer and fall.

Residents usually travel in groups of 10 to 25 (occasionally more), and their diet consists primarily of salmon and other fish, and occasionally squid. By collecting scales found floating in the water at the scene of fish kills, we have discovered that residents eat all species of Pacific salmon, but they seem to prefer chinook. This preference is understandable - chinook are by far the largest salmonid and have the highest fat content.

Residents live in complex matrilineal societies, where young whales stay with their mothers and close kin for life. Different resident pods have distinct vocal dialects, which help to keep the group together and coordinate their activities. Residents at Langara belong to the 'northern resident' community, which numbers about 200 whales and ranges from southeast Alaska to mid Vancouver Island.

Offshore Killer Whales

Finally, a third ecotype, referred to as "offshore", has recently become known to us, largely through our studies at Langara Island.

These killer whales usually travel in large groups of 50 or more, and they are seldom seen in inshore waters along the mainland coast. Their frequent appearance at Langara is due to its location close to the edge of the continental shelf.

We know very little about offshore killer whales, especially concerning their diet. We suspect they are fish-feeders, but they seem not to be salmon specialists like the residents. They appear somewhat smaller in body size than residents or transients, and have very rounded dorsal fins.

From matches to photo-IDs taken by U.S. colleagues, we know that the offshore whales seen at Langara range as far south as Los Angeles and as far north as Kodiak, Alaska. So far, we've identified about 250 whales in the offshore population.

 

Killer whales at Langara hold many surprises for both researchers and recreational visitors alike. Remember to watch them from a respectful distance so that their behaviour is not disrupted. This way, you are most likely to have a thrilling and fascinating experience.

Langara Field Guide
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Langara Island
Langara Field Guide