What We Have Learned At Home

West Coast Aquatic Safaris recently received the Article below from Rod Palm, Principal Investigator for Strawberry Isle Marine Research Society. We felt that it is such interesting and valuable information and our readers would be interested to learn a little more about the fascinating creatures we know as Killer Whales:

January 01, 2011 marked 20 years of Strawberry Isle Marine Research Society’s monitoring various aspects of the marine environment here in Clayoquot Sound.

The following is the first in a series of articles by Rod Palm about what we did and what we learned about: Kawkawin (Killer Whales) Cruisin Clayoquot Randy Frank We had, previous to January 1, 1991, been casually taking Transient (marine mammal eating) Killer Whale ID photographs for Dr. Michael Bigg who first realized that these animal’s dorsal fins and saddle patches were unique to each animal thus allowing them to be catalogued and quantified. On Jan 1 we started responding to every report (presently over 1,000 and growing) following the Kawkawin in order to learn more about their routes and behaviour. We had originally thought these whales visited Clayoquot perhaps 8 or 10 times a year and didn’t venture very far into the sound. Well, we now know that they visit Clayoquot, on average, 49 times a year, use all our navigable waters right up into the heads of all the deep inlets and may hang around for as long as 10 consecutive days. Summer is the peak visitation time with a bit of a jump in the spring. Resident Killer Whales who target on salmon (Fish Eaters) are rare visitors to our waters. Of the over 1,000 visits we’ve had, only about 60 have been these pods.

Here in Clayoquot, about 58% of the Kawkawin’s prey is Harbour Seals followed by sea lions at 24% with Harbour Porpoise at 18%. It’s interesting to note that California Sea Lions only started becoming common residents of the sound around 2005 when we recorded the first predation, and since then more than half the kills have been Californians as opposed to our indigenous Steller Sea Lions. Kawkawin will also occasionally play about with water birds and otters. There are select gangs (similar to pods) who are more frequent visitors to Clayoquot while others, we’ve only seen once. We’ve learned that gang sizes are very fluid. When we started the monitoring in ’91, the Motley Crew (T023’s) was a powerhouse with 5 strong family members. Infant mortality, old age and a teen age runaway brought them down to three, then in 2009, T023C brought a 3rd generation infant into the fold. This calf has past the critical first 2 years and looks to be doing just fine. On the other
hand, in 1991 Big Momma was a single teenage Mom with one calf. She has since built her dynasty up to 6 members. This is a little to too many animals for a transient gang so in 2009 Big Momma’s oldest teenage daughter followed in her Mother’s footsteps by leaving the matriarchal group to set up her own Gang. Gangs from as far South as California and as far North as Alaska are occasionally visitors. It’s worth noting that the first realization that Californians may enter BC waters was by a visitation yours truly photo-identified in July of 1992. Of the 250+ living Killer Whales presently catalogued by Fisheries and Oceans for British Columbia and Southeast Alaska, we have seen 160+ of them plus a dozen Californians.

We look at these Transient Killer Whales as the motorcycle gangs of killer whales whose range takes them wherever they please and yep, they do throw the occasional party where as many as 10 gangs will get together for a day of aerial acrobatics, tail slapping, races, and mingling between the gangs. All this is accompanied by very boisterous singing and bragging about what great hunters they are … well maybe that’s a stretch but that’s what the cacophony sounds like. This monitoring is permitted by DFO and is ongoing mostly by our network of drivers/interpreters in the Adventure Tourism Industry; some of them are carrying large lens cameras that we have provided while others have their own units and kindly pass on their images.

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