February 11, 2018
As we approach Family Day in British Columbia, here at Orca Spirit, we cannot help but think of the amazing families of whales we are so fortunate to spend time with on our local waters.
Killer whales are a species that display some of the strongest family bonds witnessed in the animal kingdom. We can learn a lot from killer whale families as they faithfully take care of each other and demonstrate compassion for everyone in their pod. Killer whale pods consist of closely related matrilines. Their social structure is centred around the grannies and great-grannies within the population, though you would never know at first glance that they are grannies- killer whales don’t get grey hair or wrinkles! Everyone helps take care of the younger members of the family, including the big males. Nothing is more endearing that seeing the strait six-foot dorsal fin of an adult male killer whale beside the teeny-tiny dorsal fin of a young calf! We think the killer whale motto may be “It takes a pod to raise a family!”
Like humans, the bond between family members starts very early in orca society. Mothers carry their unborn babies for 17 months before everyone else is allowed to meet these black and orange-yes orange- bundles of joy! Everyone in the population is excited about the arrival of a new baby. Many times we have witnessed the celebration of a brand new calf by the entire pod with expressions of excitement and joy through breaches, tail slaps, cartwheels and underwater chatter that could blow out our hydrophone speakers!
The bond between mothers and their offspring lasts a lifetime with resident killer whales being born into their pods and remaining close to their family for the rest of their lives. Males tend to be the poster children for the term “Mama’s Boys” as studies show that male offspring spend 40% of their life within one body length of their mother! Females remain close to their mothers as well, but eventually get pre-occupied with their own young.
The concept of blended families does not stop with our own species. Killer whales are known to adopt whales from other matrilines from within their own pod, treating them as their own immediate family. Sometimes family members pass away leaving whales with no close relatives- this is where other pod members step in and adopt them into their own close-knit family. Social bonds are very important to the survival of individuals because orcas are known to be excellent at sharing their food, especially the females. Because males are so much bigger than the females, thus they require more calories, they tend to only share about 15% of the salmon they catch with family members. However, because females do not require as many fish per day as the males, they share about 90% of all the salmon they catch! The closer the family connection, the more likely you are to get fish shared with you!
We can’t talk about adoption without mentioning one of our favourite whales named Onyx (L-87) and his one-of-a-kind family journey. Onyx is a 26 year old male from L-pod. When his mother Olympia (L-32) passed away, he started to travel with K-pod and in particular with the matriarch named Lummi (K-7) and her daughter Georgia (K-11). Switching pods has never been witnessed before in resident killer whales. After Lummi and Georgia had both passed away, Onyx switched pods again and attached to Spieden (J-8) and Granny (J-2) of J-pod. Since Spieden did not have any immediate living family, she gladly accepted Onyx as her own son. They were always seen surfacing very close together, a memory that still brings tears to our eyes. Once Spieden passed, Granny who was 102 years old at the time, adopted Onyx and remained close to him until her death in 2016.
The more we observe the natural world, the more we learn that we are not so different from other animals after all. Killer whales show love, compassion, care and empathy for not only members of their own families, but sometimes for other species as well. For orcas, every day is Family Day. So as you celebrate Family Day this year, we hope thoughts of our Southern Residents and their families bring you joy and happiness.