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Nearly 30 Bigg’s orcas observed over long weekend in Salish Sea waters off Victoria

Annual sightings record set for transient orcas
A Bigg’s killer whale seemingly defies gravity in the waters near Victoria. Photo by Paul Pudwell / Sooke Coastal Explorations

If you were out on a boat along the southern coast of Vancouver Island this past weekend, you may have noticed more black and white fins breaching the waves than usual.

Nearly 30 different Bigg’s orca whales were spotted over Labour Day weekend in the Salish Sea, the Pacific Whale Watch Association reported Sept. 8.

This news follows a recent report from Washington-based research organization Orca Behavior Institute that the Bigg’s classification of killer whales has set a new record for annual sightings in the region.

As of Monday, 793 unique sightings of the whale had been recorded off the coast. The institute’s previous record of 747 sightings was set in 2019.

In the association’s report, Paul Pudwell, of Sooke Coastal Explorations, said he saw seven different families of Bigg’s orcas in a single three-hour whale watching trip on Sept. 5. The overwhelming number of sightings was a first for him, he said.

“I’ve never seen so many Bigg’s at once. It was a special day.”

Killer whales are identified using markings on their dorsal fins and backs, and classified into types by appearance, diet, social structure and coastal range.

Unlike southern resident orcas – which primarily eat Chinook salmon – Bigg’s orcas hunt seals, sea lions and porpoises.

With over 130 calves born over the last decade, the Bigg’s whale population has grown by more than four per cent. This is largely due to the abundance of food sources they enjoy.

The salmon-eating southern resident killer whale population, which has fewer options for prey is a concern to researchers. Since April, the endangered whale group has only been spotted a handful of times.

“The contrast in health between these two orca populations is striking,” said association executive director Erin Gless. “Bigg’s prove that killer whales can thrive in this region, so long as there is food.”

Southern resident orcas from J Pod were spotted in Puget Sound on Tuesday (Sept. 7), and Bigg’s killer whales were seen among the San Juan Islands the same day.

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