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Record transient orca numbers spotted in the Salish Sea this year

Nearly 30 Bigg’s orcas, known as the ‘wolves of the seas’, observed over Labour Day weekend
A Bigg’s killer whale seemingly defying gravity near Victoria. (Photo by Paul Pudwell/Sooke Coastal Explorations)

If you were out on a boat along the southern coast of Vancouver Island this past weekend, you may have noticed more black and white fins breaching the waves than usual.

Nearly 30 different Bigg’s orca whales were spotted over Labour Day weekend in the Salish Sea, the Pacific Whale Watch Association reported Sept. 8.

This news follows a recent report from Washington-based research organization Orca Behavior Institute that the Bigg’s classification of killer whales has set a new record for annual sightings in the region.

As of Monday, 793 unique sightings of the whale had been recorded off the coast. The institute’s previous record of 747 sightings was set in 2019.

READ MORE: WSANEC leadership council announces orca monitoring program

In the association’s report, Paul Pudwell of Sooke Coastal Explorations said he saw seven different families of Bigg’s orcas in a single three-hour whale watching trip on Sept. 5. The overwhelming number of sightings was a first for him, he said.

“I’ve never seen so many Bigg’s at once. It was a special day.”

Killer whales are identified using markings on their dorsal fins and backs, and classified into types by appearance, diet, social structure and coastal range.

Unlike southern resident orcas – which primarily eat Chinook salmon – Bigg’s orcas hunt seals, sea lions and porpoises.

With over 130 calves born over the last decade, the Bigg’s whale population has grown by more than four per cent. This is largely due to the abundance of food sources they enjoy.

The salmon-eating southern resident killer whale population, on the other hand, has less options for prey and has recently been a concern to researchers. Since April, the endangered whale group has only been spotted a handful of times.

READ MORE: Researchers celebrate return of orcas after ‘unprecedented absence’ from southern Vancouver Island waters

“The contrast in health between these two orca populations is striking,” said association executive director Erin Gless. “Bigg’s prove that killer whales can thrive in this region, so long as there is food.”

Southern resident orcas from J Pod were spotted in Puget Sound on Tuesday (Sept. 7), and Bigg’s killer whales were seen among the San Juan Islands the same day.


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