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Male Orca off of Vancouver Island

Orca skeleton
Friendly Orca
Orca male
Orca male
Orca mask


Orcinus orca

One of the most recognizable species in the world, the orca, or killer whale, is considered the top predator on Vancouver Island’s coastline. Two distinct types of orca exist on our coasts, resident and transient. Like the names imply, the resident populations stay in the nearshore areas and do not migrate, while the transients only visit the island as they are passing through. A highly visible species, the whales are a tourist attraction as well as playing a part in the lives of people on the coast, appearing in First Nations legends, as mascots for sports teams, and, in the case of Luna, the orphaned whale, a popular point for local debate and discussion.


The killer whale is in fact not a whale at all, but the largest member of the dolphin family. Female orcas range from five to seven meters long and weigh three to four tonnes, while males are larger, measuring up to eight meters long and weighing over 6 tonnes. The typical colouring pattern is black, with a white eyespot and a grey patch located just behind the dorsal fin known as the saddlepatch.

The two groups, resident and transient, differ in diet. Resident killer whales tend to be more docile, and feed mainly on salmon, herring, and other small fish. Transients however, while taking fish as well, concentrate their efforts on marine mammals, especially seals and sea lions. Though they are not truly migratory, the transient killer whales “wander,” following the densest patches of prey from place to place, resulting in a large range from year to year.

Vancouver Island Range

Transient whales do not have a restricted range, though they tend to stick to the western coast of the island, and can be found periodically all over the Vancouver Island coast. The resident whales are much more particular however, forming two distinct groups: northern and southern.

The northern group begins at a line drawn between Campbell River and Tofino and continues north up to Alaska. The southern group occupies the waters of the Gulf Islands, the San Juan Islands, the Sunshine Coast, and Puget Sound. Both are more commonly seen near the shore during the summer months, moving into deeper water during the winter.

The northern group is comprised of about 200 individuals, while the southern numbers about 85. The two populations aren’t known to exchange residents or interbreed, and each population is further divided into pods. These groups of killer whales are among the most studied and documented mammals on the island.

Major Threats

There are several threats facing the resident killer whales on our coast. The American and Canadian Governments have recognized the southern population as endangered, and Canada has recognized the northern resident and transient populations as threatened. The number of whales in any given population fluctuates from year to year, and the southern population, being so small, is especially sensitive to loss.

Pollution is likely the biggest threat to the whales. They are a long living (40-50 years on average) top predator, and easily accumulate toxins in their bodies. PCBs (poly-chlorinated-biphenyls) are a particular risk, and the levels found in killer whales are often many times the known toxic level. This can result in sterile adults, early mortality, and even whales born with both male and female sexual organs.

Increasing competition with humans for usable habitat is a concern as well, with many home territories of the orca also being major shipping lanes and recreational boating areas. Noise pollution from marine traffic has become a much researched issue of late, and as the whales rely on sound for communication, they will readily abandon a territory simply because they can no longer hear in it.

Why they are Important on Vancouver Island

The orca is a popular animal and a symbol of British Columbia. They are an important economic draw for Vancouver Island, and as a threatened species in our area, they are the centre of much research and many restoration efforts.


Web site ©: The Institute for Coastal and Oceans Research (ICOR) at the University of Victoria, British Columbia Canada.