On a semi-covered catamaran, we head out to explore the Salish Sea. The sun shines off the water as we gaze at the snow-capped Olympic Mountains and admire the beauty of the Pacific Northwest. We scan the horizon for blows or dorsal fins, when suddenly a tiny 6-inch grey fin appears, then disappears just as quickly. Not a ripple. We begin to doubt we even saw anything in the first place! Just then we see another dorsal fin appear; the smooth circular motion as it breaks the surface and submerges again is very typical of the smallest cetacean found in BC waters: the elusive harbour porpoise.
There are only seven species of porpoises in the world, and we are lucky enough to find two of them in the Salish Sea! Speedy Dall’s porpoise—often mistaken for baby killer whales—tend to attract much more attention with their dolphin-like behaviour, surfing the bow waves or wakes of boats. Tiny harbour porpoise, on the other hand, are much more shy.
Measuring in under 6.5 feet long and 120 pounds, these small cetaceans don’t like to draw attention to themselves. A favourite snack of Bigg’s (aka transient) killer whales, they aren’t fast enough to outswim their predators like a Dall’s porpoise (both killer whales and Dall’s porpoise can reach speeds of 55km/hr), nor do they have any means of defense (like the claws of a massive Steller sea lion). Their best defense is simply to hide.
Now think about the world in which cetaceans live; it is a world of sound. Porpoise clicks used for echolocation and communication are shorter and much higher frequency than most other whales, around 130 kHz. Humans can hear up to 20 kHz, and incidentally, killer whales can hear up to about 100 kHz but not much past that. You see where this is going—porpoises have evolved to be ultrasonic to avoid detection by their predators who hear in a more sonic range. Evolution for the win!
What they lack in size, harbour porpoise make up in breeding prowess. During the mating season, females will mate with several different males. Part of the reproductive strategy of these small cetaceans is sperm competition—the male that produces the most has a better chance of passing on his genes. More sperm plus more mating opportunities equals more babies! This has resulted in a marked increase in the size of the males’ testes during the breeding season— up to 4–6% of their total body mass! Now that’s a claim to fame!
Harbour porpoise are usually found in coastal waters less than 100 feet deep. Feeding on small schooling fish like herring, sand lance, and hake, harbour porpoise will catch a fish, turn it around so it’s facing head-first (you don’t want those getting caught in your throat!), and swallow it whole like a little vacuum—1, 2, 3, gulp! Stranded harbour porpoise have been found with several fish neatly lined up in their digestive tracts head to tail.
Spending your life in nearshore waters usually means increased interactions with humans, from pollution to increased vessel traffic. These small porpoise are particularly vulnerable to entanglement in drift nets and gill nets. The Pacific population of harbour porpoise is listed as Special Concern under the Species at Risk Act.
Harbour porpoise make a very distinct “pfff” sound when they surface quickly to exhale and inhale, leading to their nickname of “puffing pig” on the east coast of Canada. The name “porpoise” itself comes from several older languages meaning “sea swine.”
If the weather is calm, you can spot harbour porpoise from shore in many areas around Victoria! Island View Beach, Oak Bay, even Patricia Bay looking into the Saanich Inlet are great places to look for porpoise. Jordan River, west of Victoria, and East Point on Saturna Island are great viewing spots too. Bring your binoculars if you want a closer look, but scan with your naked eye to cover more water and then use the binoculars once you’ve spotted them. As soon as the wind picks up, though, you’ll lose sight of those tiny fins in the ripples.
While harbour porpoise can be seen around the Salish Sea year-round (that is, if you can spot them in the blustery winter weather!), they use the area differentially depending on the season. Sightings are much higher throughout the area from April to October, coinciding with the breeding season. Two important feeding areas are found near Discovery Island and Race Rocks Ecological Reserve, the use of which is affected by both the tides and the lunar cycles. An important reproductive area has also been identified in eastern Juan de Fuca Strait.
If they were in high school, Dall’s porpoise would be part of the football team—loud, boisterous, and you always know when they’re in the area! Harbour porpoise would members of the math club—quieter and less obtrusive perhaps, but nonetheless fascinating and clever, and a very important part of this diverse ecosystem! So the next time you look out at the water and notice those tiny dorsal fins—often visible from shore on calm days—don’t write them off as “just a harbour porpoise;” remember these are also known as the world’s greatest small cetaceans!
Killer whales are found in every ocean of the world. They are the most widespread mammals other than humans. While they are all technically the same species (stay tuned—there has been talk about reviewing species and subspecies distinctions), they are all separate breeding populations, each with their own language, social structure, food preference and hunting behaviours—essentially their own culture. This is passed on from the older generations to the younger ones in much the same way as it is in humans. So while technically, the different ecotypes can interbreed and produce fertile offspring (thanks, SeaWorld, for proving that one [cough sarcastically]), in the wild, they don’t. Showing that they are much smarter than humans, they seem to have some sort of silent agreement that even though they may live in the same waters, since they’re not competing for the same resources, they generally just avoid each other. No fighting! No war! No genocide! Everyone wins.
It is likely that the different ecotypes evolved in different places (perhaps separated by glaciers, etc.), learning to feed on whatever prey was abundant in their area. By the time they found themselves in the proximity of other killer whales, they had been reproductively isolated for so long that the thought of interbreeding probably didn’t even occur to them. In BC, Bigg’s (aka transient) killer whales are thought to have diverged from other killer whale populations over 700,000 years ago. This is known as cultural divergence.In the North Pacific, there are three distinct ecotypes: resident (fish-eaters who prefer Chinook salmon) and Bigg’s killer whales (connoisseurs of marine mammals) occur in the coastal waters of the North Pacific, while offshore killer whales (with a palate for sharks) are mostly found—you guessed it—offshore. The same sorts of distinctions occur in the North Atlantic: type 1 eastern north Atlantic killer whales prefer herring or mackerel, which are plentiful there, and type 2 prefer marine mammals, mostly other whales and dolphins.
In the southern hemisphere around Antarctica, there are at least 5 different ecotypes of killer whales. (We’ll forgive researchers for not being certain about this, as it is a rather harsh and inhospitable climate). Antarctic type A killer whales tend to stay away from the ice and feed mostly on minke whales. Type B have recently been split into two groups: pack ice killer whales feed on seals around the outer pack ice, and smaller Gerlache killer whales (named after the Gerlache Strait on the Antarctic Peninsula in which they are often found) feed mainly on penguins. Type C or Ross Sea killer whales are piscivores, feeding mainly on fish and following channels or openings in the pack ice. Types B and C have a distinctive yellowish colour from diatoms on their skin, as well as a prominent dorsal cape. Type C is the smallest known killer whale ecotype. Last but not least is the Type D or subantarctic killer whale, with its tiny eyepatch and distinct shape, which been seen only a few times (including a few years ago off the coast of Chile).
There you have it! It is also important to note that while there are three ecotypes of killer whales in BC, they are further separated into distinct breeding populations. The endangered southern resident killer whale population, the best known in the world (thank you Center for Whale Research for 40 years of study, and Dr. Mike Bigg for pioneering the photo-identification techniques we still use today), contains only 83 animals. The northern residents, also fish-eaters, are a much larger population, numbering almost 300 animals. Bigg’s killer whales are also separated into several distinct breeding populations. So you see, conservation is not just about whether or not two animals can breed together to produce offspring; it is about ensuring the continuity of the culture, the language, the way of life… much as it is in humans. If the SRKW population continues to dwindle, would they eventually interbreed with the Northern Residents? Observations of the AT1 population of Bigg’s killer whales in Alaska, who were severely affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, indicates that they won’t. But let’s hope we never have to find out.
Special thanks to Uko Gorter for use of his illustrations. A picture says a thousand words!
We’ve compiled the following list of questions about killer whales that we frequently get asked.
1. How many killer whales are there in the world?
There are an estimated 50,000 or more around the world. Next to humans, they’re one of the most widespread mammals on the planet! Orca killer whales are divided into separate populations, each with its own geographical range, physical variations, diet, language and social structure—otherwise known as culture!
2. Why are they called killer whales?
As the top ocean predator, they kill other animals to make a living, although diets vary among different populations around the world. When mariners travelling the seas hundreds of years ago saw them preying on large whales (as some populations do), they labelled them in their language as “whale killers.” Over time, that got flipped to killer whales.
3.What is an orca?
Orca is another word for killer whale. It comes from the whale’s scientific Latin name, Orcinus orca, which translates into “belonging to the kingdom of the dead.” Some people choose to use “orca,” arguing that “killer whale” sounds too evil. The killer whale camp—which includes most scientists—prefers to call them what they are. It’s an ongoing and lively debate!
4.How big are killer whales?
Killer whales are actually the largest member of the dolphin family! Of the three killer whale ecotypes we see off BC, the largest are the mammal-eating Bigg’s. Males are bigger than females, sometimes by as much as 30%. Bigg’s males can tip the scales at more than 6,600 kg or seven tons—the weight of about four cars! For all you dinosaur fans, that’s close to the estimated weight of a Tyrannosaurus rex!
5.How deep do killer whales dive?
Typical dives are less than 300 metres and last about four minutes. Some dives can be as long as 20 minutes. But killer whales can descend further and longer when food-motivated. The world record-holder is an adult female in the southern Atlantic Ocean where killer whales steal fish off the longlines of the Patagonian toothfish fleet. This particular female dove to an astonishing depth of 1,087 metres! This depth is pushing their physiology to the extreme, note researchers, as one whale spent four hours recovering at the surface!
6.How long do killer whales live?
In some ways, their life cycle is similar to that of humans. Males reach maturity at around 15 years of age and continue to grow until they’re about 20. Although their average life expectancy is just over 30, they can live as long as 60. Females can have their first calf at around age 12-14. In healthy times, a female might have a calf every 3-5 years until she’s about 40. But she can live for decades after that—to 80 years old or more. Female killer whales have the longest non-reproductive lifespan (menopause) of all animals besides humans!
7.Why are killer whales black and white?
Notice how they’re black on top and white below. This is known as countershading and we see it in many other animals too. Countershading is a form of camouflage to either avoid being eaten or avoid being seen by something you want to eat! For killer whales, it makes them less visible to prey from both above and below. Also, that swirly black-and-white pattern helps break up the outline of their large bodies, further confusing their prey!
8.How do killer whales sleep?
Just like us, they need their rest. But while we breathe automatically when we enter our “unconscious” sleep, killer whales are “conscious breathers.” They have to think about each breath they take. So how do they rest without drowning? Research shows that half of the brain “shuts down,” while the other half remains active to regulate breathing and stay aware of their surroundings. They can even alternate which side of their brain is sleeping!
9. How many teeth do killer whales have?
They have 20-28 conical teeth on their upper and lower jaws, each 3-4 inches long. They interlock like those of a Tyrannosaurus rex! They don’t chew their food. They use those pointy teeth to grasp their food and tear it into pieces. Killer whales need to eat 5% of their body weight every day! Globally, the menu includes just about every large mammal species that lives in the sea, plus various types of fish, squid, turtles and birds such as penguins! But a lot depends on where a killer whale lives and what its mother taught it to eat. Here in the Salish Sea, the fish-eating southern residents are chinook salmon specialists while Bigg’s killer whales are marine mammal hunters!
10. How smart are killer whales?
They have the second largest brains among all ocean mammals (the sperm whale is the biggest) so that’s a clue. It weighs in at about 15 lbs. Sure, bigger animals typically have bigger masses of brain cells. Looking solely at brain weight-to-body weight ratio as a measure of intelligence, killer whale brains are 2.5 times average, similar to those of chimpanzees. But there’s more going on in those big heads. Their brains have more convolutions and surface area than ours, suggesting a heightened ability to process information and emotions. These are very complex social and emotional animals. And they’re smart, probably much smarter than we think!
Blog written by Eagle Wing Tours naturalist Valerie Shore
Dall’s porpoises—they’re lean mean speeding machines. Known for its agility and playfulness, this species is often mistaken for a harbour porpoise or a baby killer whale. Since they seem to be lesser known than their other Salish Sea friends, it’s time to shine the spotlight on this engaging black and white speed demon.
Here are seven things that may surprise you about Dall’s porpoises.
1. They’re big (ish)
Dall’s are the largest porpoise in the world! Porpoises are the smallest members of the cetacean family. Measuring up to 2.4 metres (8 ft.) and 200 kg (440 lb.) is impressive when compared to their smaller counterparts. In contrast, the world’s smallest porpoise, the endangered vaquita (endemic to Mexico), is only 1.2 metres (4 ft.), and 43 kg (95 lb.).
2.They’re faster than a speeding bullet
Well okay, perhaps not quite that fast. But they can swim up to 55 km per hour! Swimming this speed near the ocean’s surface produces their iconic “rooster tail” of bursting sea spray. They’re one of the few animals that can out-swim a killer whale—a rare and impressive feat. They can sprint at the same speed as the killer whale which gives a Dall’s porpoise about a 50% chance of escaping—but also a 50% chance of becoming a tasty snack!
3. They love surfing
Dall’s porpoises can be playful around boats and other whales. They often race directly toward boats of all sizes to play in their bow waves or wakes. Dall’s are so hardcore they’ll even brave the deafening roar of a container ship to ride the sweet waves it leaves in its path!
Dall’s porpoises not only interact with boats, but also other species of whales. They’ve been seen swimming with humpbacks and fin whales! These gentle giants are particularly attractive when they swim quickly enough to produce waves. The phrase “bow riding” may refer to whales interacting with boats, but it seems Dall’s will happily bow ride a whale if there’s nothing else around
4. They sometimes “get frisky” with harbour porpoises
Dall’s porpoises are a distinct species, yet harbour and Dall’s porpoises do hybridize. Usually the Dall’s porpoise is the mother and the harbour porpoise is the father. Male harbour porpoises are much more promiscuous than Dall’s, and they want to find as many lady porpoises as possible—regardless of the species, it seems. Hybrid porpoises may make up 1-2% of the entire Dall’s population off southeastern Vancouver Island!
Male Dall’s porpoises have an entirely different strategy. In a behaviour known as mate-guarding, they’ll stick with their lady friend to prevent other males from getting a chance with her!
5.They’re hunted by more than killer whales
Dall’s porpoises are somewhat successful at escaping killer whales. But unfortunately they’re still hunted in the western Pacific for human consumption in Japan. Thousands are slaughtered each year in the Japanese harpoon hunt and thousands more die annually in the Japanese drift net fishery. There is ongoing concern about the sustainability of this level of exploitation in the region.
Dall’s were not targeted by commercial whalers in BC, although some have been entangled and killed by fishing gear. Despite the wide variation in population estimates—as high as 1.2 million but it could be much lower—Dall’s porpoises are considered a species of “least concern” by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
6.They’re named after an American naturalist
William Healey Dall (pronounced “dawl”) was a naturalist and palaeontologist in the mid-19th century. Dall’s porpoises are named in his honour, along with several mollusk species and a type of sheep! Contrary to popular belief, he did not name the Dall’s porpoise after himself. A friend of his at the (now) Smithsonian wanted to recognize his hard work in the field.
7. They’re natural sopranos
Ever heard a Dall’s porpoise vocalize? We’re guessing not. Their echolocation clicks are so high-pitched that we can’t hear them! Neither can killer whales which of course is another crafty way for Dall’s to avoid getting eaten. Fortunately, we have technology to help us hear what they sound like. Listen for yourself
As part of our research mandate, we also assist BC porpoise researcher Anna Hall by contributing on-water data to her studies on the distribution and abundance of Dall’s and harbour porpoises in the Salish Sea.
We’re absolutely devastated to share the news that the local wolf known as Stakaya, who inhabited the Discovery and Songhees Islands just off Victoria before being captured in downtown James Bay and then relocated at the end of January, has been killed by a hunter.
For the past eight years, on the group of islands that lie just 3 km southeast of Victoria, we would scan hopefully along the shoreline for a glimpse of our favourite coastal wolf. For some of us, he was our “white whale” — that bucket list sighting we never managed to catch. Others on our team managed to spot him on many occasions, and we share their photographs of Stakaya with you here.
During this time when we’re feeling such sorrow over this senseless death, we encourage you to learn more about the issue of wolf conservation in BC and what you can do to help.
We’d rather not go into the details about how easy (and affordable) it is to acquire a hunting license both for BC residents and non-residents alike, or the fact that any licensed hunter can take three wolves per season on Vancouver Island using a shotgun, rifle or crossbow from Sept 10–March 31 and April 1–June 15. Or the fact that this well-known wolf had a very obvious bright yellow ear tag.
We also won’t go into detail about BC’s wolf culls, against which the BC SPCA has taken a stand (you can read more about this in the links below).
Instead, we’ll leave you with a few organizations that are working hard to change BC’s relationship with wolves. We hope you’ll help us in supporting these campaigns.
Since so many of us are at home in self-isolation, why not use this time to your advantage to learn a bit more about the issues and take a few moments to write to our MLAs and tell them why supporting BC wildlife is important to you.
It’s our sincere hope that we can use our anger and frustration over Stakaya’s senseless death to mobilize people to action and effect change in current regulations so that one day, wolves and other animals will be better protected in our province.