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Orcas return to Pender Harbour's Gunboat Bay

Who were those whales spotted on the B.C. coast last week? Ocean Wise researchers and residents share the details

As Trina M’Lot was waking up on Aug. 15, there was a sound she’d never heard in her family's 12 years on Pender Harbour’s Gunboat Bay: A pod of orcas breaching, the slap of fins hitting the water and the eerie sound of their calls to one another. 

M’Lot says she didn’t recognize the sound right away. When she and her family saw a pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins come into the bay in the spring of 2020, she thought it would be a dream come true to see orcas in the area. So when her parents called from next door on the property to say orcas were outside, she grabbed her camera. In her excitement, she couldn’t remember how to use it. 

“They weren’t in any hurry to get anywhere, they were just slowly poking along and playing,” she said. She estimates six whales spent about 20 to 30 minutes in Gunboat Bay. 

“I've seen many orcas while out kayaking and from the beach in different places but there's just something so special about seeing them, in my case, from my backyard. To be able to wake up from your bed and hear them breach and then run out and see them right there, where you look out the window every day for a long time and you never see any whales,” M’Lot said. 

“I never thought this would happen. It was always like a wild, far-fetched dream to see orcas from the property here in Gunboat Bay and to have it actually come true is pretty surreal.”

Who are those whales? 

From her parent’s property in Pender Harbour, Ocean Wise Whales Initiative’s senior manager Jessica Scott tells Coast Reporter the whales were most likely on the hunt for their preferred prey — harbour seals.

Simon Pidcock identified the pod as Bigg’s killer whales, also known as transient orcas, who only eat marine mammals including seals, sea lions and other cetaceans such as porpoises, dolphins and baleen whales. There are around 350 Bigg’s killer whales in total, Scott said.

Four of the orcas spotted in Gunboat Bay make up the T090 pod, led by their matriarch T090 herself, who is easily identified by the scar on the base of her dorsal fin from a satellite tag. (Satellite tags are no longer used for killer whales in the north Pacific, and researchers instead rely on scientific surveys and reports from citizen scientists.) The other members of the pod are her three offspring: her son, T090A born in 2006 and her two daughters T090B (born 2010) and T090C (2017). 

Scott says the eldest daughter is nearing reproductive age. “It will be really interesting to see if this family returns to the Sunshine Coast next year with a little calf in tow. That’s what I’m hoping for.”

But there were two or three other killer whales in Gunboat Bay who have not been identified. Scott says they're most likely from another group. 

"Bigg's killer whales have a little bit more of a fluid social structure, so they will tend to make temporary associations with other groups," she said. That's likely why reports of whale sightings have been inconsistent with how many orcas have been seen at a time, but the orcas in Gunboat Bay definitely included the T090 pod. 

Throughout that week, the T090 pod travelled south, and sightings were reported from Gibsons and Vancouver Harbour. While Bigg’s killer whales can be seen year-round in many areas, there are currently harbour seal pups drawing them into shallow waters (and closer for people to spot them). Scott says if you’re ever on the water and smell the scent of watermelon, that is actually the smell of seal blood. 

While she herself didn’t see the whales’ appearance in Gunboat Bay, Scott said, “The appearance of these killer whales in Gunboat Bay is indicative of the growth of this population of killer whales, which has an absorbed annual growth rate of approximately four per cent. So as their population increases, sightings are becoming more and more common.”

Resident orcas have yet to return

But unlike the Bigg’s killer whales, as far as the southern and northern resident orca populations are concerned, those blackfish seem to have blacklisted the Pender Harbour area (although they have been seen in other parts of the Sunshine Coast). Scott says there have been no documented visits from either resident population since the late 1960s, when a dozen members were captured and sold for display in aquariums. 

Back in 2001, 15 to 20 members of the southern residents were reported to the BC Cetacean Sightings Network in Bargain Bay, but they didn’t enter the harbour. In the past decade, there have been about 10 sightings of killer whales reported in the Pender Harbour area, but all are presumed to be Bigg’s killer whales. 

“They’re long-lived animals with a matrilineal social structure, so they learn where to go and what to eat from their mothers and grandmothers,” Scott says. “I would presume that the lack of resident killer whale sightings in Gunboat Bay is due to the fact that these killer whales have been taught by their ancestors to avoid the area where these captures occurred.”

Bringing back memories

For Anne Clemence, the sound of the whales brought back many memories. Her house sits close to the narrows, where the orcas passed by. 

“I heard them slap-slap outside and I know exactly what whales sound like, because I was here when they had the whales in the harbour in 1968 and 1969. So, I went out on my porch and I couldn't see a thing,” Clemence said. “I was so disappointed because I love seeing those guys.” 

Friends sent her a video of the pod members breaching. 

“It brings it all back,” she said of when whales were caught and trained in the waters of Pender Harbour. “It was the beginning of the time when we realized that whales weren't going to eat us or fight us or catch our fish. People stopped shooting at them, and it had a tremendous turnaround.” 

After an orca was captured alive for the Vancouver Aquarium, “they realized how very bright they were, and they had memories and family connections. It was really fascinating,” Clemence says. 

(At one point, Clemence bought the former ticket booth used in Pender Harbour for $50 — to the dismay of her partner. “What in heaven’s name are we going to do with that?” he asked her. The heavy hexagonal cedar shack was converted into a smokehouse for salmon, and now stores her apples.)

How to help protect wildlife

Scott encourages the public to report their whale sightings, especially after a recent oil spill from a fishing boat near San Juan Island in Haro Strait. Anyone with a smartphone can report whales in real time to broadcast their location to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Coast Guard and Transport Canada. Trained authorities can take measures to divert whales from spill sites, and large vessels can avoid striking or disturbing whales.

An interactive map can be found on the WhaleReport App. To see whales from land, Scott recommends Whale Trail BC (www.whaletrail.org or www.wildwhale.org) a network of sites where you’re most likely to see whales on B.C.’s coastline.

Sightings also serve as valuable research information for Ocean Wise’s BC Cetacean Sightings Network, which has been curating a database of more than 300,000 reports of killer whales and other cetaceans spanning over 50 years. That information is used to monitor the occurrence, relative abundance, and distribution of at-risk whale populations in B.C. waters.

Boats must stay 400 metres away from killer whales in all southern B.C. coastal waters, including the Pender Harbour area. More marine mammal regulations can be found at www.bewhalewise.org

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