Two distinct populations of resident orcas inhabit the waters of the eastern Pacific.  Northern resident orcas are comprised of 34 pods, totaling more than 200 inidividuals. Their range stretches from the north end of Vancouver Island to southeast Alaska. Most of what we know about orcas was first discovered by researchers studying the northern resident pods in the 1970s and 80s.

Northern resident orcas can be identified by their dorsal fins, saddle patches and eye patches. Each pod has a unique call. Northern residents are fish-eaters, with a strong preference for Chinook salmon. They work together to catch their prey, and share it with each other. Mothers share with their offspring until a female has her own calves. Older males share food with their mothers.

Northern resident orcas live in tightly bound family units called pods, and stay with their mothers and siblings for their entire lives. Generations stay together in matrilines, organized around the older females.

Acoustics. Northern Residents are organized into three acoustic clans: A, G, and R.  Clans consist of multiple matrilines that share a distinct set of calls. Each matriline further shares a set of calls. By listening to the calls, trained researchers can identify which pods are in the area and can even identify specific members of a pod.

Rubbing Beaches. Northern residents routinely visit the rubbing beaches of Robson Bight (Michael Bigg Ecological Reserve) during the summer. Pod by pod, the whales enter the shallow waters of the Bight, and roll around or “rub” on the smooth stones there.  Scientists believe these areas and behaviors are critical to Northern Resident social structure.

Northern Resident orcas are currently listed as Threatened in Canada.  Threats include lack of prey, toxin accumulations, and vessel impacts, including the threat of oil spills.

HOW TO SPOT

Northern Resident Orcas are similar to the Southern Resident Orcas in appearance. They are large black on the back and white on the belly animals. They can have open grey saddle patches and curved (towards the back) dorsal fins. The easiest way to spot these whales is to find the large male dorsal fins. The blows are low and bushy. Look for blows and dorsal fins at the surface.

WHEN AND WHERE TO SEE

Northern resident orcas are most commonly seen around the north end of Vancouver Island between June and September. Watch from shore at Whale Trail locations from Nodales to Telegraph Cove. Further north, look for orcas in Prince Rupert.

RANGE

Northern residents range from Southeast Alaska to northern Vancouver Island and in the inlets of B.Cs’s central and north coasts.

DIET

Northern Residents are opportunistic fish-eaters. They have a strong preference for  Chinook salmon and will selectivel

They use echolocation to locate the prey.

ADULT MALE FACTS

Male Northern Residents have large (up to 2 meters) dorsal fins, large rounded pectoral flippers, curved large tail flukes and are generally larger in size than females. On average males live for about 30 years, but can reach 50-60 years.

ADULT FEMALE FACTS

Female Northern Residents have dorsal fins that are smaller and curved to the back, and are slightly smaller overall than males. On average females live for about 50 years, but can live to 100 years!

SOCIAL STRUCTURE AND BEHAVIOR

Northern Residents live in a complex matriarchal society. The calves will stay with their mother’s for their entire life span. The bonds are strong within the matrilines even after the mother has passed. Pods are formed when one or more matrilines travel together.

This group of resident whales are also known to “rub” along pebbled beaches in central and northern B.C. They have been filmed very close to shore as they swim up and rub their bodies along smooth pebbles.

STATUS

The Northern Resident Orca population is listed as threatened.

CURRENT AND HISTORICAL THREATS

The Northern Resident Killer Whale population is increasing at a rate of 4% per year. However, they are affected by low salmon runs, high toxin loads and boat disturbance.

The northern resident orcas were impacted by capture operations during the 1960s and 70s. Namu, the first orca intentionally captured for display in an aquarium, was a northern resident orca. By the time the captures were stopped, more than one third of the total resident orca population had been removed. Of these, only two survive.

  • Corky is a northern resident and member of the A-23 pod. She is currently kept at Sea World San Diego.
  • Lolita is a southern resident and member of L-pod who is currently kept at the Miami Seaquarium.

Orcas were also perceived as threats to fishing, and shot at or killed. During the 1950s, the Canadian Navy used the orcas as target practice.

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