Record number of transient orcas spotted in B.C. last year
Researchers and whale-watching groups say 2021 was a record-breaking year for the number of Bigg's killer whales, or transient orcas, seen in the waters of British Columbia.
According to the Orca Behavior Institute, based in Washington state, there were 1,067 unique sightings of Bigg's killer whales in the Salish Sea over 329 days in 2021.
That total is up considerably from the previous record of 747 unique sightings set in 2019.
"It has been incredible to witness the continued rise of Bigg’s killer whales in the Salish Sea," said Monika Wieland Shields, director of Orca Behavior Institute, in a release Tuesday.
"In 2021, there were days when we documented 10 different groups of Bigg’s throughout the region totaling more than 50 whales."
Unlike the critically endangered southern resident killer whale, Bigg's killer whales primarily feed on marine mammals, such as seals and sea lions.
According to the Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA), the Bigg's killer whale population is rising at four per cent per year, based on data from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Eleven Bigg's calves were estimated to be born in 2021, with the most recent sighting of a calf being near Victoria on New Year's Eve.
The calf is the seventh child of a transient orca named T124A, or "Kittiwake."
"It’s crazy to think that whales like Kittiwake have given birth to so many babies given that the gestation period for orcas is 16-18 months – almost twice that of a human," said Erin Gless, executive director of the PWWA on Tuesday.
"The calf looked great and at one point adorably seemed to take a turn leading the family."
Bigg's killer whales were the most frequently sighted whale in the Salish Sea last year, followed by humpback whales, gray whales, and minke whales, according to the PWWA.
The region also saw a record-breaking 21 humpback whale calves visit the Salish Sea in 2021, almost double the 11 that were spotted in the region in 2020.
Despite a bump in whale sightings for a variety of species, southern resident killer whales continue to be a rarity, with population counts around the 75 mark.
Three southern residents were confirmed to be pregnant last year, but no new calves have been spotted yet, according to the PWWA.