Some killer whales are notable for their history, others stand out in appearance. Some groups, like the family of Bigg’s killer whales headed by a whale we call Tasu, are a combination of both. We’re very fortunate to encounter this matriarch and her offspring from time to time on our whale watching tours from Victoria.

It’s time to introduce you to Tasu and her fascinating family of five!

Tasu, Rocky, Lucy and Kano in 2019 / Shorelines Photography, Eagle Wing Tours

An eventful history

Known as T002C by researchers, Tasu has been plying the waters around Vancouver Island since 1989. At the age of 32, she’s built a strong family unit, including eldest son Rocky (T002C1), born in 2002; daughter Lucy (T002C3), born in 2005; and son Kano (T002C4), born in 2017.

But let’s shift the focus of this story back in time to March 1, 1970. On this day, five killer whales were herded into Pedder Bay just west of Victoria. It was the height of the captivity era in the Salish Sea, and the plan was to sell the whales to marine parks for profit and entertainment.

One of the whales was an adult male with a deformed chin that gave him a distinct underbite. He was nicknamed Charlie Chin (T001). The others were Scarred-Jaw Cow (T003), a young female later named Nootka (T005), and another young female who would come to be known as Chimo (T004). Most remarkable— Chimo was almost completely white! More on that later.

The fifth whale—an adult female very important to this story—was dubbed Pointed-Nose Cow by her captors. We later knew her as Florencia (T002).

Chimo “performing” at Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria, summer 1972
Photo by John F. Colby. Courtesy of Jason Colby

Fractured family

Within a month of their capture, Chimo and Nootka were separated forever from their family and moved to a small aquarium known as Sealand of the Pacific in Oak Bay, a suburb of Victoria. Chimo would perish from an infection two years later. But a life of confinement would last two decades for Nootka before her death in 1990.

Back in Pedder Bay, Scarred-Jaw Cow—believed to be Chimo’s mother—died from starvation after 75 days of refusing food. She’d repeatedly been offered fish from her captors who, like most people at the time, believed that’s what all killer whales ate. They were unaware that these whales hunted marine mammals.

That left Charlie Chin and his presumed mother, Florencia, who was also slated to be sold. But fate would be kinder to these two. After eight months of confinement in the little bay, the pair escaped their netted prison—but not on their own. Someone loosened the nets!

Over the years, the pair would become a familiar sight along the BC coast. Florencia had three more offspring: son Bajo (T002A) and two daughters, Pedder (T002B) and…drumroll here…Tasu! Bajo is no longer with us, but Pedder and Tasu are still regularly encountered to this day.

White killer whale off Clover Point, Victoria, January 1958
Photo by T.L. Sinclair, courtesy of the Royal BC Museum

A unique gene pool

That’s only part of the T002 story. Not only are there disfigured chins and jaws in this bloodline, there are multiple cases of pale-coloured whales.

Chimo wasn’t totally white, but her black and white markings were almost completely obscured by chalky grey pigmentation. Dazzled by dollar signs, her lead captor wasn’t surprised. Since 1923, there had been occasional reports of a white killer whale on the BC coast, including one 1950 report off Victoria of a white mother and white calf. By 1959, there had been more than 70 sightings of a white killer whale the locals called Alice.

Off Victoria in January 1958 two normal-coloured killer whales were photographed with a smaller white whale. Years later, this white whale was assigned the number T006. Her two companions were given the numbers T003 (Scarred-Jaw Cow) and…another drum roll please…T002 (Florencia). Sound familiar?

Here’s where the plot thickens. Chimo was too young to have been the 1923 whale, or even the 1958 whale. So it’s clear that there have been multiple white whales on the BC coast —in other words, more than one Alice!

Chimo was found to have a rare genetic disorder known as Chédiak-Higashi (C-H) syndrome—also seen in humans—that results in pale skin pigmentation, a compromised immune system, and below average life expectancy. Because C-H is inherited, the gene for it can be carried by any related whale. Interestingly, one of Chimo’s relatives today, four-year-old Kano, also appeared more brown than black for the first few years of his life!

Tumbo in 2018 / Brendon Bissonnette Photography, Eagle Wing Tours

A supportive family

As if these family oddities weren’t enough, in 2005 Tasu gave birth to her second-known offspring, a male known as T002C2 or Tumbo. He was born with scoliosis—a severe curvature of the spine—which affected his ability to swim and hunt.

All whales are special, but Tumbo was more so. While his disability in the later years was often hard for us to watch, his determination and the supportive and caring nature of his family were inspiring.

As Tumbo’s condition increasingly affected his ability to swim, his family travelled slower so he could keep up. Over the years, they spent more time in familiar hunting grounds for weeks at a time. This is unusual for animals that regularly travel 100-plus miles a day.

Fast-speed pursuits and quick turns to hunt prey were impossible for Tumbo, so his mother and older brother provided food for him. Their patience and strong sense of family would keep Tumbo alive far longer than anyone had expected.

But time and a maturing body were working against Tumbo. He fell further and further behind his family. By fall 2019 researchers were unable to locate him anywhere near his family after widespread searches, and he was declared deceased. He was 12-years-old.

Pedder (T002B) / Shorelines Photography, Eagle Wing Tours

A breakaway sister

Tasu also has another unusual family member: her older sister Pedder (T002B), ironically named after the bay her mother and kin were held captive.

Pedder is one of only a handful of adult females that regularly travel separately from their immediate kin. Since an early age, Pedder has marched to the beat of her own drum, and is known to travel with other family groups. She’s most often seen with members of the T060 and T090 matrilines.

Pedder has had only two calves that we know of, both of which died shortly after birth. Now aged 42, her reproductive lifespan has likely come to an end with the onset of menopause. However, she’s no doubt passing on invaluable lessons about how to be a successful Bigg’s killer whale to the young whales in her “adoptive” families!

New calf T002C5 beside Tasu, Jan. 8, 2021. Big brother Rocky is in the back.
Courtesy of Bay Cetology/Gary Sutton

A new hope

It’s said that in death there’s life, that in sadness there’s joy. We have a happy update to the T002C story. On Jan. 8, 2021, Tasu and offspring were encountered off northern Vancouver Island with a brand new calf in their midst! Her fifth calf! Designated T002C5 by researchers, this unnamed youngster brings new hope for the future of this family.

We wish them all the best!

Join us on a tour and possibly meet Tasu and her family! To book a tour give us a call or book online!

Blog written by Brendon Bissonnette, marine naturalist with Eagle Wing Tours