by Valerie Shore, Naturalist

While the residents are away, the transients will play.

Or so it seemed in the waters off southern Vancouver Island in 2017. While the endangered southern resident killer whales were scarcely seen in the area for much of the year due to the chronic shortage of chinook salmon (their major prey), mammal-eating transient or Bigg’s killer whales filled the void in record numbers.

According to statistics compiled by analyst Jane Cogan for the Center for Whale Research (CWR), transients were seen in the Salish Sea in 2017 on more than 280 days, often with multiple groups scattered across the region.

That’s up from 239 days in 2016, and 259 days in 2015.

But here’s the kicker: more than 225 individual transient killer whales were identified in the Salish Sea in 2017, including several new calves and whales that had never been documented before in this area. That’s up from at least 165 individuals in 2016.

To put these numbers into perspective, there are an estimated 275 whales in the entire west coast transient population, which ranges along the coast from northern California to Alaska.

Clearly, the Salish Sea is becoming an increasingly popular meeting place and “restaurant” for these apex predators, who are thriving on an abundant supply of seals, porpoises, sea lions and small baleen whales.

There were several days in 2017 when several groups of transients were scattered about the region. One of those days was Sept. 1, when 45 transients in multiple groups and areas were photographed by CWR staff – the most transients documented in the region in a single day in the history of the center’s killer whale study!

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) maintains the west coast transient killer whale population data, assigns designations to new calves and “newcomers,” and has primary responsibility for monitoring the population, behaviours, threats and distribution throughout their range.

Eagle Wing Tours provides sightings information and photos to both CWR and DFO.