We once thought that one killer whale was just like another. But scientists have learned that it’s not so black and white. In fact, every killer whale in B.C. lives in one of three separate groups. Except for a slight difference in the shape of their dorsal fins, the whales in each group look a lot alike. Once you start watching them carefully, however, you’ll see that they act very differently.

Scientists call the three groups - or ecotypes - residents, transients, and offshores.

The three ecotypes eat different types of food, hang out in different kinds of groups, have different home territories, and even have their own “languages”. Residents are chatty fish eaters who always live with their mothers, transients are stealthy hunters who stalk seals and dolphins, and we don’t know much about the elusive offshores.

No one knows how the ecotypes formed, but it’s becoming clear that they don’t mate or interact with each other. Learning what each group needs to survive and thrive is an importa Read More
We once thought that one killer whale was just like another. But scientists have learned that it’s not so black and white. In fact, every killer whale in B.C. lives in one of three separate groups. Except for a slight difference in the shape of their dorsal fins, the whales in each group look a lot alike. Once you start watching them carefully, however, you’ll see that they act very differently.

Scientists call the three groups - or ecotypes - residents, transients, and offshores.

The three ecotypes eat different types of food, hang out in different kinds of groups, have different home territories, and even have their own “languages”. Residents are chatty fish eaters who always live with their mothers, transients are stealthy hunters who stalk seals and dolphins, and we don’t know much about the elusive offshores.

No one knows how the ecotypes formed, but it’s becoming clear that they don’t mate or interact with each other. Learning what each group needs to survive and thrive is an important part of the research at the Vancouver Aquarium.

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.

This chart shows some of the ways the ecotypes differ:

 

Residents

Transients

Offshores

Food Fish, particularly salmon Seals, porpoises, sea lions, whales and other marine mammals Unknown, but probably includes fish and squid Read More

This chart shows some of the ways the ecotypes differ:

 

Residents

Transients

Offshores

Food

Fish, particularly salmon

Seals, porpoises, sea lions, whales and other marine mammals

Unknown, but probably includes fish and squid

 Social grouping

Family groups called matrlines; residents stay in the same group their entire lives

Small groups of 2-6 whales that may change members

Unknown; usually seen in groups of 20-60

Range

Along the B.C., Washington, Orgeon and Alaska coasts
MAP

Along the entire Pacific coast of Canada and the United States, from California to Alaska
MAP

Usually out at sea, far from the coast

Dorsal fin shape

Rounded at the tip, with a sharply curved angle at the back of the tip

Pointed tip

Rounded at the tip, without the angle at the back


© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.

To make sure that we don’t bother the whales too much, experts have made a list of suggestions for whale watchers to follow. Follow this link.

Vancouver Aquarium
Conservation in Action

Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard:

The real wild coast of British Columbia is home to an amazing variety of animals, including 29 species of marine mammals. The team at the Vancouver Aquarium has come to know some of them pretty well.

For over 25 years, the Aquarium’s scientists and staff have dedicated themselves to learning all they can about these wonderful creatures. We spent countless hours observing them here at the Aquarium and in the wild, studying their behaviour, their health, even how they talk to each other.

Gil Hewlett:

In the 1970s, we helped pioneer photo-identification to determine individual killer whales. With this technique we were actually able to follow the lives and fate of killer whales and forever changed how we viewed the species.

Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard:

We conducted groundbreaking research on whale communication and showed that each pod of resident killer whales has its own dialect, which it passes from generation to generation, much like a human language.

We also made fascinating discoveries about how they navigate and find their food, and we’re now using DNA fingerprinting to learn how they avoid inbreeding – a major concern, given their small population sizes.

Today, we’re working with scientists from universities and governments around the world. Together, we’re helping marine mammals on B.C.’s wild coast.
Not long ago, our knowledge was put to good use when we helped rescue a young killer whale named Springer, an orphan who ended up alone near Seattle, far from her family.

With our research colleagues, we were able to determine exactly who she was and where she came from. Through an unprecedented international effort, Springer was moved home and re-united with her family. When last seen, she was thriving.

Dr. Dave Huff:

This is something that would have been almost impossible were it not for the Vancouver Aquarium’s tremendous amount of hands-on experience gained through literally decades of working with killer whales. That knowledge and experience helped us understand the health, the social and the technical challenges that we had to overcome in order to make Springer’s move a success.

Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


Three killer whales swimming at the surface in the wild

Photo : J. Ford

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


Scientists think that offshore killer whaled may be eating sharks as part of their diet.
Scientists think that offshore killer whaled may be eating sharks as part of their diet.

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.

British Columbia is one of the best places in the world for watching and researching killer whales. This is both a special honour and an important responsibility.

Unfortunately, scientists warn that B.C.'s killer whales are at risk of extinction. Different human activities are threatening them.

Swimming in toxic soup

Pollution is dangerous to killer whales. Because these animals are at the top of the food web, they can build up large amounts of toxic chemicals in their bodies from their food. These toxins don't break down and are passed from mothers to their calves through their milk.

Desperately seeking salmon

We don't know everything a killer whale eats, but we do know that they like salmon. Since salmon populations have been declining lately, it may be harder for killer whales to find the food they like to eat. They might have to spend more time traveling and hunting to find food. This could put killer whales in danger if they go to areas with heavy boat traff Read More
British Columbia is one of the best places in the world for watching and researching killer whales. This is both a special honour and an important responsibility.

Unfortunately, scientists warn that B.C.'s killer whales are at risk of extinction. Different human activities are threatening them.

Swimming in toxic soup

Pollution is dangerous to killer whales. Because these animals are at the top of the food web, they can build up large amounts of toxic chemicals in their bodies from their food. These toxins don't break down and are passed from mothers to their calves through their milk.

Desperately seeking salmon

We don't know everything a killer whale eats, but we do know that they like salmon. Since salmon populations have been declining lately, it may be harder for killer whales to find the food they like to eat. They might have to spend more time traveling and hunting to find food. This could put killer whales in danger if they go to areas with heavy boat traffic. They may also switch to less nutritious prey, which in turn makes them less healthy.

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.

Boats going overboard

Imagine trying to relax or fix some food for yourself after a long day while strangers are constantly running around in your house. That’s what killer whales might be facing with all the boats sharing the water with them. To avoid boat collisions or just to get away, killer whales sometimes change their behaviour – like changing their course or stopping their foraging. That’s why the marine mammal watching guidelines suggest that boats keep at least 100 metres away from killer whales and travel parallel to them instead of cutting in front of them.

What? I can't hear you!

Noise pollution can interfere with the killer whales’ ability to communicate and may even cause some whales to strand themselves on the beach. Whales live in a world of sound – researchers think they rely on sound to navigate and to find food the way we depend on our eyesight. The rumble from ship engines can confuse killer whales or mask their own sounds. Loud underwater activities such as testing military sonar Read More
Boats going overboard

Imagine trying to relax or fix some food for yourself after a long day while strangers are constantly running around in your house. That’s what killer whales might be facing with all the boats sharing the water with them. To avoid boat collisions or just to get away, killer whales sometimes change their behaviour – like changing their course or stopping their foraging. That’s why the marine mammal watching guidelines suggest that boats keep at least 100 metres away from killer whales and travel parallel to them instead of cutting in front of them.

What? I can't hear you!

Noise pollution can interfere with the killer whales’ ability to communicate and may even cause some whales to strand themselves on the beach. Whales live in a world of sound – researchers think they rely on sound to navigate and to find food the way we depend on our eyesight. The rumble from ship engines can confuse killer whales or mask their own sounds. Loud underwater activities such as testing military sonar and oil exploration may produce sounds so intense that it causes harm to the animals. Scientists think that “hearing” a military sonar blast underwater can be compared to sitting in a dark room and then having a painfully bright light blasted at your face.

Help is on the way

Researchers at the Vancouver Aquarium are trying to help by learning more about these animals. You can help too. Take a look at the Get Involved section to see what you can do.

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.

A group of killer whales swimming near an industrial factory

Photo : G. Ellis

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


If a southern resident killer whale dies and washes up on shore, its body is considered toxic waste!
If a southern resident killer whale dies and washes up on shore, its body is considered toxic waste!

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.

Imagine living with your mother all your life. Think you can handle it? Resident killer whales do.

Staying with mom

A mother resident killer whale is the leader of her family; her children usually stay with her all their lives. When her daughters have children of their own, those kids stay with the group too. A group made up of a mother, her children, her grandchildren, and maybe even her great-grandchildren, is called a matriline. When the oldest mother dies, her daughters begin to travel together less frequently. Eventually, they might form matrilines of their own.

Peas in a pod

Pods are made up of matrilines that hang out together a lot. Scientists think that sometime in the past, the matrilines all shared a common maternal ancestor. It could be that they used to be one big matriline until the oldest mother died.
Imagine living with your mother all your life. Think you can handle it? Resident killer whales do.

Staying with mom

A mother resident killer whale is the leader of her family; her children usually stay with her all their lives. When her daughters have children of their own, those kids stay with the group too. A group made up of a mother, her children, her grandchildren, and maybe even her great-grandchildren, is called a matriline. When the oldest mother dies, her daughters begin to travel together less frequently. Eventually, they might form matrilines of their own.

Peas in a pod

Pods are made up of matrilines that hang out together a lot. Scientists think that sometime in the past, the matrilines all shared a common maternal ancestor. It could be that they used to be one big matriline until the oldest mother died.

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.

Clan you dig it?

Pods that share a similar set of calls, or dialect, make up a clan. Each group of whales makes a different set of sounds, which is likely passed down from mother to children. Therefore, the more related the whales are, the more similar they sound.

This is probably how killer whales can tell who’s family when various pods get together. Even though residents stay with their mothers all the time, they manage to avoid inbreeding. One theory is that they choose mates based on how different they sound.

You can find out more about killer whale dialects in the Sounds All Around section.

Transients do it differently

Transient killer whales live in much smaller groups than residents, probably because it’s easier to hunt that way. A small group can sneak up on an unsuspecting seal or porpoise more easily than a whole matriline.

Transients sometimes leave their family group to join up with other transient killer whales. Sometimes they Read More
Clan you dig it?

Pods that share a similar set of calls, or dialect, make up a clan. Each group of whales makes a different set of sounds, which is likely passed down from mother to children. Therefore, the more related the whales are, the more similar they sound.

This is probably how killer whales can tell who’s family when various pods get together. Even though residents stay with their mothers all the time, they manage to avoid inbreeding. One theory is that they choose mates based on how different they sound.

You can find out more about killer whale dialects in the Sounds All Around section.

Transients do it differently

Transient killer whales live in much smaller groups than residents, probably because it’s easier to hunt that way. A small group can sneak up on an unsuspecting seal or porpoise more easily than a whole matriline.

Transients sometimes leave their family group to join up with other transient killer whales. Sometimes they stay away from their families for the rest of their lives, but sometimes they go back to their moms after a few years. As a result, it’s harder for us to organize the transients into families.

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.

A group of killer whales exhaling in the wild

Photo : J. Ford

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


Transient and resident killer whales are genetically distinct. They probably havn'T interbred for thousands of years.
Transient and resident killer whales are genetically distinct. They probably havn'T interbred for thousands of years.

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.

Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • familiarize himself with the vocabulary used in biology;
  • assess human impacts on biodiversity, and identify ways of preserving biodiversity;
  • describe how personal actions help conserve natural resources and protect the environment in their region;
  • demonstrate an understanding of the dynamic nature of ecosystems.

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