The Northern Residents

Northen residents  021 Northen residents  002Northen residents  003It seemed as if our chances of encountering whales on a one-day kayak trip were not very good. And the kayak tours are kind of pricey. So we opted for a whale watching tour on a regular boat to go look for the Northern Residents.

Since we try to avoid big groups on tours, we chose a 5:30 p.m. departure with Stubbs Island Whale Watching. Apparently, that time slot never gets full. Which is surprising since it’s a beautiful time of day to go out on the water.

That afternoon, which was pretty cloudy, there were 14 people on a boat that accommodates up to 49 people.  Very nice.Northen residents  005Northen residents  004Northen residents  006

As our Captain, Geoff and the young naturalist, Sofia, were giving their introductory and safety talks, someone looked up and pointed to a bear that was walking by the marina just across the water from us.  Right in front of our campground!  A good omen.

Northen residents  054Northen residents  008So off we went once again to Johnstone Strait, this time powered by motor.  Some of the Northern Residents had been spotted earlier and the captain went in search of them.Northen residents  024

There are two communities of resident killer whales in the areas of British Columbia and Washington, the Northern Residents and the Southern Residents. Both are fish-eating whales with a preference for Chinook salmon and both travel to this area when the salmon are running in summer. But each has a very specific range.  And they don’t overlap.  orca range

Northen residents  001The Southern Residents, numbering over 80 whales, remain in the waters around Victoria in South Vancouver Island and the San Juan Islands in Washington, where we saw some of them a few weeks ago. The Northern Residents, numbering around 250 whales, remain within the northern end of Vancouver Island and its surrounding inlets.Northen residents  098

Flying birds … and one fish

Flying birds … and salmon

Northen residents  092Apparently, only a few of the Northern Residents had arrived in Johnstone Strait, making it even tougher to find them. Once all of the Northern Residents arrive, chances of seeing killer whales increase significantly.Northen residents  017

As our captain searched for the orcas, we spotted a couple of humpback whale spouts in the distance. But most people wanted to see the killer whales, and so he continued on his original quest.

Along the way, we spotted Dahl’s porpoises, lots of birdlife and lots of jumping salmon.

And then we found the whales.  Appropriately enough in Blackfish Sound, a body of water across Johnstone Strait in the Broughton Archipelago.Northen residents  057

Northen residents  020Northen residents  016Resident killer whales have a matriarchal society; all whales remain with their mothers for their entire lives. Each family unit is a matriline.  Multiple generations form pods that travel together most of the time.  Members of a pod know to mate only with whales from other pods within the same resident community but return to their maternal pods afterwards.  A clan is a group of pods that share a common ancestor.  And members of a clan have their own dialect. 

We saw several groups of whales swimming and feeding together. Our naturalist later identified them as being from J pod in the A clan.Northen residents  018

j2_Matriline_rightdorsalBothHow did she know? Back in the 70s, a Canadian marine biologist named Michael Bigg discovered that each individual whale’s dorsal fin and the pigmentation patterns on its saddle patch (a gray area behind the fin) are distinctive enough to identify individuals.

He developed a technique using photographs of the left side of the whales to distinguish individuals. Using that technique, clans and pods have each been assigned a letter of identification, while individuals have the letter of their pods plus a number.

Sofia took photos of all the whales we saw and was able to identify some on the spot. And the photos allow her to identify and record the rest later. orcas

Once it was possible to identify individual whales, it also became possible to count them, track their movements, learn about their feeding habits and gain an understanding of their social structure. And to determine when new whales were born and when members of the resident communities died.Northen residents  026

There were now whales on both sides of the boat, in fact one of the European tourists said “we need more eyes” because we didn’t know which way to turn. As we continued to observe the whales, our captain lowered a hydrophone into the water to allow us to hear their communication.  Northen residents  025

These fish eating whales use echolocation to locate their prey; by emitting sounds they can identify when their prey is near by the echoes created when those sounds reach the prey. Resident killer whales are also quite vocal in communicating with each other.Northen residents  022

We heard a number of squeals, squeaks and clicks through the hydrophone.Northen residents  016

Another group of orcas that frequent this area are transient whales. Transient whales travel in smaller pods over relatively wide areas feeding on marine mammals, not fish. Because mammals such as harbor seals can hear for great distances transient whales communicate minimally and don’t use echolocation.

Northen residents  029After observing the orcas for a while, the captain took us to an area where a humpback whale is known to visit frequently. And we got a brief glimpse of the humpback. Nice.

Northen residents  028Northen residents  035As we neared the end of our tour, Sofia gave another talk about the whales. The talk focused on the fact that the Northern Residents are classified as threatened. Because they are top predators, they absorb PCBs and other toxins from the water directly as well as from the salmon they feed on and from whatever the salmon have eaten.  The high level of contaminants found in Northern Residents is exceeded by the Southern Residents, who travel near two large cities, Victoria and Vancouver, and are classified as endangered.Northen residents  034

Sofia’s talk ended with a heart felt plea for all of us to do our part to keep the oceans clean. It was very enlightening and touching.Northen residents  099

Northen residents  036Then as we returned to scenic Telegraph Cove and approached the dock, we spotted a bear walking on the shore under the boardwalk.

The wildlife tour was not yet over!Northen residents  100Northen residents  039

Northen residents  037We remained on the boat to ask some questions, then Hector went to look for the bear. And, as Hector turned around a corner, there was the bear just walking casually down the boardwalk. We think this bear was the same yearling we saw in a tree through the window of the Whale Interpretive Centre a few days earlier.  Northen residents  038

Northen residents  041Northen residents  040We enjoyed the whale watching tour so much that we asked about a discount on additional tours, and they offered 50% off on another 5:30 sailing.  Sold!

Northen residents  055The next day was another rainy day, and we stayed inside until it was time to go out on the boat.   And it was raining as we boarded with about 13 others giving us lots of room once again on the 49-passenger vessel.Northen residents  058

This time the whales had been spotted a bit far from our starting point so we had to travel for a longer way to find them. Which gave us an opportunity to hang out in the cabin a bit and wait for the rain to subside.Northen residents  056

And we found the killer whales once again. We saw several orcas including a mother and calf. Sofia, our naturalist identified them.Northen residents  049

Northen residents  048As they swam away we followed their path from a distance and stopped, then they started to swim towards us. Then a few more whales approached, apparently there were two different pods, and there was romance in the air. They got pretty close to the boat and swam away once again.

This whale is swimming upside down!

This whale is swimming upside down!

Northen residents  047The Northern Residents as well as the Southern Residents are the most studied whales in the world, having been studied for over 30 years. But there is still a lot to learn and the studies continue.Northen residents  051

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Eaglet in nest

After we left the whales, the captain took us to an area where there was an eagle’s nest with an eaglet!  And we saw a several adult eagles.Northen residents  027

Northen residents  067Northen residents  068Northen residents  070Northen residents  079Then Captain Geoff spotted a ton of birds flying over one particular area of the water. There were about 15 bald eagles; some mature, and some immature. We couldn’t even count the gulls, there were so many.Northen residents  083

Northen residents  077Northen residents  071Northen residents  084Northen residents  085Northen residents  075Northen residents  069Northen residents  076Northen residents  074The eagles were swooping around but not capturing anything. The theory was that there was a large school of fish but they were swimming too far below the surface for the eagles.

There were also rhinoceros auklets on top of the water, and a bunch of them had small fish in their beaks.

Breeding adults have a hornlike extension of their beak, thus the name. These relatives of the puffins are able to dive as deep as 187 feet to find their food!

Northen residents  095Northen residents  066Northen residents  091After the birds dispersed, we left the area to look for another humpback whale but didn’t find her. And it was raining again.Northen residents  064

Northen residents  096So our second whale watching tour came to an end, and a beautiful rainbow appeared as we sailed back home.

We have both become fans of the highly intelligent and social resident killer whales, and will hopefully return to visit them again.


31 thoughts on “The Northern Residents

  1. What a great couple of days you had! Don’t you just love the abundance of wildlife in this part of the world? It’s like no where else in the US, except maybe Florida, where it’s also all about the water. Water=Life, I guess. The more water the more life. Loving those wildlife shots Hector!

    • The wildlife around here is wonderful, and, combined with the scenery, the area is spectacular. I love the birds in Florida, especially around the Everglades. We’re headed to some national parks where we should see some different types of wildlife, and Hector loves wildlife photography, so stay tuned.

    • This area is really rich with wildlife, and combined with the scenery, it’s spectacular. We love the birds in Florida, especially in the Everglades, and we’ve been fortunate to see lots of manatee as well. We’re headed to some national parks where there is lots of other types of wildlife, and Hector loves wildlife photography, so stay tuned.

  2. Awesome…. I would have been so excited with the bear so close even though I’ve had my fair share of close encounters with black bear in MN. What size lens did Hector use that day? 600mm?

    • Yes and I missed it! Hector doesn’t have a 600mm lens (he wishes!). He has a Canon 100-400mm zoom, but for the bear he used his regular lens, which is a 24-105mm zoom. He also has a wide angle lens, which he used for the big redwood trees most recently.

    • Hi, Grace! He had a tough time because it was cloudy, dark and of course the birds were flying around – so the conditions were not ideal. But he got some good ones anyway.

    • Thanks! You’ll definitely see them within a three week timeframe. If you get a chance you should take the ferry over to San Juan Island and visit Lime Kiln Point State Park on the west side. There’s a lighthouse in the park and it is one of the best places in the world to see whales from shore, and pets on leash are allowed (except from some “designated” beaches). In fact, when we saw the Southern Residents they were on that very shore. And the town of Friday Harbor is pretty cute also. I’m excited for you, have fun!

    • I agree it’s a must do. The ferry is to get across is expensive though. In hindsight, I think I’d spend a month on Vancouver Island instead of two weeks.

  3. I will leave it to Hector to capture wildlife especially whales and bald eagles and Brenda to tell us the story behind it. Just fabulous. You are really deep into overwhelmingly beautiful surroundings, as they say Beautiful British Columbia!

  4. Wow, great wildlife sightings. Perfect place to watch whales. We took our kids whale watching out of Telegraph Cove 25 years – one of our great memories. Glad you got there and enjoyed it.

  5. Oh, Brenda and Hector, what an amazing experience! I most definitely would have gone a second time, also. Wonderful photos:) The whales are gorgeous! And then the eagles…beautiful! The bear was the cherry on the top. It was so adorable walking down the boardwalk.

    • I know, I can’t believe I missed the bear walking on the boardwalk, never imagined he would do that!

  6. Oh, Brenda and Hector, what an amazing experience! I most definitely would have gone a second time, also. Wonderful photos:) The whales are gorgeous! And then the eagles…beautiful! The bear was the cherry on the top. It was so adorable walking down the boardwalk.

  7. We are hoping to get to British Columbia next year so thank you for the wonderful suggestions for seeing some amazing wildlife. Your photography is so stunning Hector. What a privilege to get to see the Northern Residents.

  8. Great blog, fabulous descriptions and photos! I like the cut and paste of charts and other material. Something newly discovered?
    I am also “totes jelly” with your trip!
    Take care and keep enjoying!

    • Thanks. Hector is trying to bring in images about our location. All of the text was mine, I only italicized to show the parts that were just informational and not part of our activities. Glad you’re back on the blog.

  9. How fascinating!!! Whales, and eagles, and bears, and birds, and oodles of nature. And rainbows!!!! Wow!!! Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful adventure!!!

    Lots of love,

    • The wildlife are always one of my favorite parts, as you know. We’ll be in Denver the last two weeks of September, hope to see you.

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