This year is set to shatter the record for number of unique sightings of Bigg’s killer whales, or transient orcas, in the waters of the Salish Sea.
The Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA) and Orca Behavior Institute (OBI) say there have been 1,270 unique sightings of Bigg’s killer whales on the coast of B.C., setting a new annual record, despite there still being two months left to go in 2023.
This year’s total is already 50 more sightings than the previous record of 1,220, which was recorded last year during all 12 months of 2022.
“Bigg’s killer whales have been seen in the Salish Sea every single day since March 12th. So that is quite a streak and that’s actually the reason that we don’t refer to them as transient killer whales anymore because they’re not very transient,” said Erin Gless, Executive Director for the PWWA.
The OBI and PWWA say an increase in orca sightings is largely due to a rebound in their food source – pinnipeds.
The two groups say that marine mammals, like seals, sea lions, and porpoises, have had their populations grow after they became protected by the B.C. government.
Previously, these marine mammals were subject to hunting and bounties because they were considered competition for local fisheries.
Those programs ended in the early 1970s, though the issue is still contentious with local anglers.
With marine mammal populations rebounding, however, more Bigg’s killer whales are coming to B.C. waters to feast on their favoured prey.
The OBI adds that these totals are “unique sightings,” meaning even if a group of orcas is reported multiple times on a single day, it is only considered one unique sighting.
“Ten years ago, we were only getting 15 per cent of that”, said Monika Wieland Shields, director of the OBI.
Prince of Whales Adventures says this year has been successful in spotting multiple species of whales out on the waters.
“We’re seeing maybe three, four species of whales, humpbacks, orca whales whether they’re southern or northern resident whales…maybe a minke whale here and there,” said Nik Coutinho, Sales and Marketing Manager at Prince of Whales.
While Bigg’s killer whales appear to be thriving in B.C., the same can’t be said of southern resident killer whales.
“It looks like we’re on pace to have the second lowest number of sightings for the year,” said Monika Shields, Director for OBI.
These orcas feed primarily on salmon, not marine mammals, and their population and number of sightings have been on the decline, according to the PWWA and OBI.
The groups add that loss of spawning habitat, rising ocean temperatures, predation from natural predators as well as humans, and chemical pollution are all impacting southern resident populations.
This year, only 112 SRKWs have been spotted. In 2022, 193 were spotted and the year prior 121 were spotted.
“Until we restore the major Salish Sea Chinook salmon runs, particularly on the Fraser River, it’s clear the Southern Residents will continue to spend more time on the outer coast where they have the chance to encounter a wider variety of salmon runs from different river systems,” said Shields.
As of September 2022, there were an estimated 73 southern resident killer whales in B.C., Center for Whale Research.
As of January 2023, there were an estimated 370 Bigg’s killer whales in the province.