After 25 years, the pod of Northern Resident Orcas has come home to the Broughton Archipelago, just off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.
“I felt very emotional,” said independent marine biologist Alexandra Morton. “In a world where so many things are going wrong, to see things go right, it’s just so deeply moving.”
The A5 pod hasn’t been seen in its original Winter hunting grounds for a quarter of a century, but on January 4, Morton got a call from another marine researcher, Jared Towers with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
“It was just a routine call, and I responded to an acoustic detection of killer whales, so we knew who they were already,” said Towers.
The Marine researcher headed out on the water and watched the A5 pod, including a healthy calf, land in the Broughton Archipelago for the first time in decades.
“That was the original foraging territory for that family of killer whales and for the last 20 years, they haven’t been seen there,” said Towers.
In the 80s and 90s, however, those waters were their constant winter hunting grounds.
The A5 pod is actually why Alexandra Morton moved there in the first place.
“I went to Alert Bay with a Zodiak and a couple friends and we found them the first night and in 1984 they led us into the Brighton Archipelago and I made it my home so that I could study them year-round,” said Morton, who’s lived on the edge of Blackfish Sound ever since.
For years, she researched and studied the pod until a local fish farm started to use acoustic harassment to keep away seals in 1995.
“It’s an extremely loud sound, 198 decibels. It’s as loud as a jet engine on takeoff. For the whales, it was kind of like if needles were coming at our eyes,” explained Morton, who tested the sound herself.
“When I watched them go by the farm I didn’t understand at first because they were cruising by with their heads out of the water and I had never seen that before.”
The whales, unable to handle the sound, vacated the area.
“I didn’t know when I saw them that day that they would never come back, and days weeks, months, years went by, I realized they’re not coming back,” said the marine biologist.
Morton says fish farmers eventually stopped using the acoustic devices to repel seals, the last of which she believes was removed in 1999. But the whales had long since left.
In September of 2019, three First Nations in the Broughton Archipelago area, the Namgis, Mamalilikulla, and Kwikwastu’inuxw Haxwa’mis, removed many of the fish farms.
Now, a little over a year later, the family who left more than 25 years ago, is home.
“When you see a top predator, an apex predator, come back, there is an enormous sense of hope that the ecosystem is healing,” said Morton.
Experts are also saying that the return of the A5 pod is serving as an inspiring indication of a recovering ecosystem.