Killer Whale’s Unique Culture and Behaviour

“Do you speak whale?” asked Dory the Clownfish in Finding Nemo. And the answer, we know from all our years kayaking among the Northern Resident Killer whales  in British Columbia’s Johnstone Strait, is, “Maybe.”

We say, “maybe,” because, according to researchers who study the resident Killer Whale communities off Vancouver Island, each clan of Orcas that populate our waters have their own distinct dialect that are as different from each other as Greek is to Russian.

Three Killer Whales surface beneath a puff of breath along BC's Johnstone Strait

Three Killer Whales surface beneath a puff of breath along BC’s Johnstone Strait

Killer Whale Culture

One of the most studied marine mammals in the world, we know Killer Whales have a highly evolved and complex social structure — behaviours that they learn from each other — the evidence of which we often see as they pass our base camp and our kayaks.  Consider this, while amusement parks and aquariums are keeping Orcas in captivity, out in the wild, these behemoths can live well past 70 years, living out their entire life span within swimming distance of their mothers. Their social structure is organized by matrilineal lines, roughly translated as “follow your mother.” Each pod is classified by the eldest female in the family, and even after the eldest female passes on the siblings remain together, with the next oldest female assuming responsibility for the rest.

Rubbing Behaviour

The Northern Resident Killer Whales that we see at Orca Camp are extremely social animals, and one of the places they most like to socialize is in the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve, the only protected Killer Whale habitat in the world. We are fortunate that our base camp sits right next to the Robson Bight, so we often get to see pods swimming right past our beach on their way to the reserve. And just why do they travel to Robson Bight? Why, to rub their bellies, of course! This is a behaviour unique to the Northern Residents — deflating their lungs so they can submerge low enough to rub their bodies against the steep pebbled beaches of the Robson Bight. Why do they do this? According to marine researcher Jackie Hildering,

“Beach-rubbing by the Northern Residents must be a social and recreational behaviour. A whale massage? Certainly it must feel good. Maybe, as an additional benefit, doing something you enjoy together also further solidifies family bonds (social cohesion being needed for community maintenance)? Reportedly, the vocals sometimes made by the Northern Residents while beach-rubbing support that this is a social behaviour since they are the same “looney tunes” made when Northern Resident families reunite.”

Communities, Clans and Pods

Just like humans, the Killer Whales we see in British Columbia are part of a greater community:

Chart of Killer Whale Community Structure c/o the BC Cetacean Sighting Network

Chart of Killer Whale Community Structure c/o the BC Cetacean Sighting Network

The Northern Resident Community consists of three groups, the A, G and R Clans, each with numerous pods (a larger unit made up of one or more matrilines that travel together and may be related) within each clan. A clan is a group of pods that share similar calls or dialects, indicating that they share a common ancestry and are more closely related to each other than to whales in other clans.

A resting line of Killer Whales near Ecosummer's Orca Camp in the Johnstone Strait

A resting line of Killer Whales near Ecosummer’s Orca Camp in the Johnstone Strait

Researchers continue to study the Northern Residents from a station located directly across the Johnstone Strait from our camp — all the better to study the animals entering and exiting Robson Bight. One of the highlights of our Orca Camp experience is the opportunity for our guests to talk to the researchers on a short hike to Eagle Eye. No matter how many times we’ve talked with the researchers, we always come away with some new information that helps us better understand these beauties.

You can learn more about Killer Whales on our guided sea kayaking trips. Visit our website to find out more.

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March 24, 2016