Captain’s Blog

The Orca Families Living in BC’s Coastal Waters

February 10, 2016

There’s really no substitute for the real thing, and when it comes to animals – wild animals living their lives as they’ve done for thousands of years – the behaviours we’re fortunate enough to witness drive this point home.

For Orca Spirit’s Rachael Merrett, an encounter with an orca when she was six years old was all she needed to begin a lifelong path working beside, and not with, these animals.

This is the final segment in my interview with Rachael. Read part 1 and part 2.

Kelvin: You have a clear passion for the families of Orcas living off the coast of BC. Is this just a natural inclination or is a specialty that you’re working on by design?

Rachael: It’s not a professional speciality, no, but my fascination with the family lines is just impossible to resist. I was drawn to identifying each whale by their dorsal fin and their saddle patch and then I learned all of their family connections and who was related to who and their common names and their alpha-numeric names. I think that was more a personal interest that grew naturally.

Tell me more about the names and the specific pods living out here. J pod and L pod right?

There’s J, L, and K pods. Each have their own specific traits and habits. Some of the individuals are easier to remember than others. I couldn’t do all 83 of them off the top of my head but I know a lot about them very quickly when they’re out there in the water in front of me. The more time you spend with them the more you get to know their personalities.

For example, certain whales eat faster than others. We don’t chase the whales around necessarily, we respect their space. Plus if they wanted they’d be gone in an instant, but that being said, you can bet your life that if Blackberry of J pod is close to your boat, he’ll do a pass just to say hello, or to investigate. He just does that. Cappuccino is the same way. You know Onyx is a granny, there’s so much information, so you have to be passionate about it but if you are then it’s not difficult.

What else can you tell me about the distinct behaviours of the three different pods?

The southern residents, that’s the J, K, and L pods, are each made up of multiple matron lines. Though L pod is the biggest so they’ll have more matron lines than J and K. Each transient group that we see will be its own matron line. In the transients, they don’t live in pods, they live in just a matron line. Because of their hunting habits they can’t be in big groups. And then residents, you could have multiple lineages within one pod, and the matron is a member of that pod. And they all have their dialects; K and L each have their own dialect, but the same language.

If you have a hydrophone and you listen to them often enough, you can pick out what J, K or L pod whales sound like. It’s not really that difficult, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating. It’s just a matter of getting to hear each one enough times that you start picking up that accent.

Is it as distinguishable as an Irish accent with a British accent?

Yeah, J’s are like Canadians and L’s are the Australians and the K’s are the British. All speaking English but we all sound a bit different.

This blows my mind.

There’s been articles written and thorough research on hydro-acoustics and the different dialects and languages. One study, J pod was fishing and these experts, it’s easy, they know exactly who’s down there. So this was going on for a couple of hours and all of a sudden they could hear calls of L pod on the hydrophone but there were no L pod whales to be found. The researchers were quite confused and had no idea what was going on. Sure enough, several hours later, L pod did show up, swimming in from the open Pacific, but it wasn’t them talking, that’s still too far away.

So who was it?

It was J pod mimicking L pod.

No, really? Unbelievable.

You can only really speculate as to why. Is that how they call each other? Were they rolling out the welcome mat? They can mimic each other just like we can. As to why, we don’t really know yet. The fact that they have the ability and the intelligence to do it is – blows my mind, too.

These animals are clearly intelligent, but are they self-aware?

Good question. Sometimes when they come by the boat, and I’ve had a few of them over the years, they turn on their side and actually make eye contact with you, and you just wonder if they think we’re ridiculous. I wonder if they know how much we love and appreciate them.

This is getting philosophical which is awesome.

(Laughs) Yep. But I like to think they’re watching us while we’re watching them.

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