Baby L124 photographed with mom, L77, about five miles from Vancouver Island’s shoreline near Swiftsure Bank. (Submitted/Mark Malleson)

Orca ‘superpod’ photographed off shoreline of Vancouver Island

Questions of health, food supply still plague dwindling southern resident killer whale population

After the devastating news of three resident orca deaths, a sighting of a ‘superpod’ with two healthy-looking calves off the coast of Vancouver Island could be a positive sign.

The mammal-eating transient pods, or Bigg’s orcas, who hunt along the coast between Alaska and California, have been enjoying the pinniped bounty of the Salish Sea this summer, providing Islanders with incredible sightings and share-worthy images of the orcas’ open saddle patches and rounded dorsal fins splashing through Island harbours and straits.

But southern residents – their smaller, echolocating, salmon-eating cousins, whose critical habitat spans the southern Strait of Georgia, Haro Strait and Juan de Fuca Strait – have been noticeably absent, and three were declared dead in early August after showing signs of malnutrition, plunging the total population to just 73.

READ ALSO: Three southern resident killer whales declared dead plunging population to 73

On Sunday, Mark Malleson encountered a resident orca superpod (a grouping with members of all three pods present) five miles off the coast of Vancouver Island near Swiftsure Bank.

“I didn’t see them all, they were so spread out, but there was certainly representatives of all the [pods] there and we saw the two new calves,” he said. “That was my first time seeing the calves, I was quite excited to finally lay my eyes on them.”

Baby girl J56 with her mom, J31 hunted with the superpod of resident orcas spotted near Vancouver Island on Sunday. The Southern Residents have been noticeably absent from their critical habitat this summer and were seen as far down the coast as California. (Submitted/Mark Malleson)

Malleson, a photographer and research assistant with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Washington-based Center for Whale Research, was on the water with colleague Joe Zelweitro, searching for a humpback whales seen off Sombrio Point a few days earlier.

After coming across a concentration of humpbacks, they headed west towards Swiftsure Bank. Eventually, they went to a location where others had reported seeing the residents. Just five miles from the Island’s shoreline, they spotted the orcas hunting.

“It was great seeing them. They seemed very animated,” he said.

READ ALSO: Aerial photos reveal good and bad news about B.C.’s endangered killer whales

READ ALSO: Bigg’s orcas in the Salish Sea point to shifting habitat of resident killer whales

Lauren McWhinnie, orca researcher and University of Victoria professor, said the superpod sighting is good news, as it may indicate mating amongst the pods. In matriarchal orca society, males stay with their mothers. Interaction with other pods is necessary for breeding.

“When we see interactions with all three pods present, that’s a sign for hope on that front … that something will come out of that,” she said.

But McWhinnie notes a number of pregnant resident whales have been unable to carry their babies to term, and even those born remain vulnerable until at least two years old.

The calves spotted Sunday – L124 and J56 – are both under one year.

READ ALSO: Killer whale pushing dead calf gets support from her pod

“It is a positive sign that the two calves have made it this far … especially since there is a high mortality rate in calves,” she said. “But we are, by no means, out of the woods yet. The odds of their survival go up significantly once they pass the two-year mark.”

McWhinnie noted the residents’ summer absence isn’t totally unusual – they have been showing up in their critical habitat more frequently in late summer and early fall for the last few years – but this year was a significant change.

“We’ve never had them this absent from the Salish Sea before in terms of documented history,” she said. “The fact that they aren’t here is probably indicative that there’s just not the fish here to support them.”



nina.grossman@blackpress.ca

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