Meet the Whales

Each of our wild killer whales has a different story!


How do we know? The killer whales that roam the British Columbia (B.C.) coast have all been individually identified by researchers. Each whale has been identified with a scientific number, adoption name, sex (if known), and year of birth.

In 1973, Canadian scientists began compiling photographs of killer whales off the coast of British Columbia and Washington. By using physical characteristics such as nicks, scars, and the shape of the dorsal fin, it was possible to identify individual whales. This pioneer photo identification program, now an annual event, has enabled scientists to construct detailed family trees for each matriline (family) and pod – all of which are listed as at risk under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) in Canada.

Not Actually a Whale

While the name implies a whale, the killer whale, also known as orca, is actually the largest member of the dolphin family. Without a doubt, they are one of the most distinctive marine mammals in the world with striking black-and-white colouring and a tall dorsal fin.

Killer whales are long-lived, highly social animals that live in stable family groups. In fact, sons, along with daughters and their offspring, stay with their mothers for life. The bond between siblings is so strong what most remain together even after their mother has passed away. They are also highly playful, often seen breaching, spyhopping, tail slapping and engaging in other social behaviours.

B.C.'s Killer Whales

Killer whales are presently considered to be single species worldwide. While the animals look very similar, they are not a homogenous group. In fact, three different ecotypes exist in the Pacific Northwest – referred to as resident, Bigg’s (formerly transient), and offshore killer whales. Each group is distinctly different in their social behaviours, diets, hunting strategies and genetics, and they do not intermix. In B.C., resident killer whales are divided into southern resident and northern resident populations.

Learn more about B.C.’s killer whales populations below:

Meet the Whale NRKW

Northern Residents

Feeding exclusively on fish, this population currently numbers around 300 whales and are listed as Threatened under the Canadian Species at Risk Act. They are commonly observed around northern Vancouver Island, and B.C’s Central and North Coasts.


Southern Residents

This fish-eating population frequents southern Vancouver Island and northern Washington State throughout summer and fall. Currently numbering at less than 80 individuals, the population is listed as Endangered under both the Canadian Species at Risk Act and the U.S.  Endangered Species Act.

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Bigg’s (Transients)

This marine-mammal eating population numbers at over 500 individuals and are listed as Threatened under the Canadian Species at Risk Act. Their range expands all along the western coast of North America, from Alaska to the southern California coast.

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