Killer Whale (Northeast Pacific northern resident population)

Orcinus orca

SARA Status
No Status
NS
Special Concern
SC
Threatened
TH
Endangered
EN
Extirpated
EX

SARA Status

  • No Status NS
  • Special Concern SC
  • Threatened TH
  • Endangered EN
  • Extirpated EX
COSEWIC Status
Not at Risk
NR
Special Concern
SC
Threatened
TH
Endangered
EN
Extirpated
EX

COSEWIC Status

  • Not at Risk NR
  • Special Concern SC
  • Threatened TH
  • Endangered EN
  • Extirpated EX

At a glance

Northeast Pacific northern resident killer whales live in the waters off northern Vancouver Island and the mainland BC coast as far north as southeast Alaska. The population of these whales is small and has relatively low potential for growth—yet between 1977 and 1997 their number did increase. This makes it all the more troubling that, since 2000, the whales’ population has declined by roughly seven percent—mostly due to man-made water pollution.

About killer whales

The largest members of the dolphin family, killer whales are highly social animals that live in stable, family-related groups called pods. Led by females, these pods usually consist of five to 50 whales, although sometimes they can combine to form groups of 100 or more. Like humans, killer whales are very protective of their young.

What they eat

Killer whales eat a wide range of prey, including squid, fish, sea turtles, sea birds, sea and river otters, sea lions, penguins, dolphins and other large cetaceans, such as the blue whale. Northern resident killer whales, however, eat mainly fish.

How to recognize a killer whale

Without a doubt, the killer whale is one of the most distinctive marine mammals in the world. Its size—seven to nine metres long and between four and five tones in weight—and its striking black-and-white colouring, and long, rounded body make it unmistakable. The first sight of a killer whale is often the tall dorsal fin. In fully grown males, this fin sticks straight up, often as high as 1.8 metres. In females and young whales, the fin is curved and less than one metre high. Behind the dorsal fin is a grey area called a saddle patch. The shape of the dorsal fin and saddle patch, as well as natural nicks and scars on them, are unique to each killer whale.

Whale chat

Killer whales talk to each other through a complex variety of whistles, squeaks and whines made with air trapped in their blowholes. The sounds vary from pod to pod, with each group having its own unique dialect or language. Killer whales can recognize their own pods easily from several miles away based on the distinctive songs. Researchers believe that the more similar the dialects between two pods, the closer they are related. Pods of whales with related dialects are called clans.

Killer whale pods are very vocal when hunting for prey. They use a series of clicking sounds that bounce off fish and other objects in the water. Called echo-location, this natural sonar is useful when searching for food or navigating in murky water, enabling the whales to build an accurate picture of what’s around them.

Where the killer whale lives

In fact, killer whales are found in all three of Canada’s oceans, and occasionally in Hudson Bay and the Gulf of St. Lawrence as well. Resident killer whales live in separate northern and southern communities. The northern community lives off northern Vancouver Island and the mainland coast. Southern residents are found off southern Vancouver Island.

Why it’s at risk

Northern resident killer whales are potentially at risk from threats such as organochlorine and toxic-chemical contamination. Increasing levels of water pollution make the whales more susceptible to disease and reproductive difficulties. Sport and commercial fisheries have also depleted abundance of the various species of salmon on which the whales feed, leading to reduced food supply. As well, the closeness of the whales’ habitat to urban centers has led to more frequent collisions with boats and exposure to significantly higher numbers of oil spills. It’s also possible that the large and growing recreational whale-watching industry may be having a negative impact. Killer whales have no natural predators, but are vulnerable to mass strandings, in which large numbers of whales beach themselves at once and are unable to return to sea.

What’s being done

Legislation to protect killer whale populations in BC waters was first introduced in 1970 under British Columbia’s Wildlife Act. In 1982, the whales were included in regulations under the Fisheries Act of Canada. These regulations prohibit hunting without a licence, except for Aboriginal hunting. No licences are currently being issued. Whale-watching guidelines have also been introduced to minimize negative interactions between boats and whales.

What can you do?

Killer whales will get the protection they need only if all Canadians work together to reduce threats. Find out more about killer whales and be aware of man-made threats to northern resident killer whales such as entanglement in fishing gear, noise and water pollution, and collision with boats. Do your best to reduce these threats wherever possible to better protect the whales’ crucial habitat. Get involved with the Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk (HSP) or another conservation organization.

Join a stewardship program such as the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network. The Network’s main goals are to identify key habitats and help reduce threats. The Network also solicits cetacean sighting reports from mariners along British Columbia’s coast. Find out more.

Or, join the British Columbia Adopt a Killer Whale Adoption program, run in conjunction with the Vancouver Aquarium. Find out more.

Species at Risk Public Registry Profile

Background information provided by Environment Canada in March 2004.

Killer Whale (Northeast Pacific northern resident population)

Killer whale

Killer Whale - Orcinus orca
Photo credit: B. Peters © Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Scientific name: Orcinus orca
Taxonomy: Mammals (marine)
SARA Status: Threatened (2003)
COSEWIC Status: Threatened (2008)
Region: Pacific

Working together to protect Northern & Southern Resident Killer Whales.

Working together to protect Northern & Southern Resident Killer Whales.

© Shutterstock

© Shutterstock

Did You Know?

With no natural predators, killer whales can live to between 50 and 80 years of age. That’s if they survive their infancy. Sadly, nearly half of all killer whales die between birth and the age of six months. This brings down this species’ average lifespan to 17 years for males and 29 years for females. Additionally, they calve only once every five years on average. All of these factors combined mean that killer whale populations tend to have extremely low growth rates. And that can make any threat to their survival a severe one.

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