And now for something completely different—lone male killer whales of the Salish Sea!
As we all know, killer whales tend to live and travel in family units. In fish-eating resident killer whales, these multi-generational units of related whales are known as pods. Among mammal-eating Bigg’s (transient) killer whales, they’re called groups. They typically consist of a mother and her offspring.
Among resident killer whales, offspring rarely leave their family pods. Related males and females stay together for life. But things are a little different among Bigg’s killer whales. Daughters usually stay with their mothers until they’re old enough to have families of their own. Then they typically disperse.
But the sons are mama’s boys. They often stay with her for life. But not always. As with everything in nature, there are exceptions. In this special instalment of our Family Matters series, we look at some of those exceptions. We introduce you to…the “lone males!”
Bigg’s lone males are enigmatic, impressive and usually have a backstory as to why they live a solitary life. Some have become lone males because they’re the sole survivors of their family line. Others seem to have either chosen a life of solitude, or for reasons unknown, don’t fit into a closely related family group.
Whatever the case may be, let’s take a close look at four of the lone males that we frequently see in the Salish Sea!
The legendary Rainy
Known as T011A by researchers, Rainy was born in 1978 and is one of the best-known whales in the Bigg’s killer whale population.
One reason for Rainy’s popularity is his sheer size. In a drone study published in 2020, Rainy was measured at an astounding 8.3 metres in length. At the time, that made him one of the longest-measured killer whales in the world! As a comparison, that’s the length of two average-sized cars!
Rainy hasn’t always been a loner. In his case, he’s the sole surviving member of his maternal line. In 2019, his mother Wakana (T011) died, likely due to old age. Born sometime around 1964, Wakana lived to be one of the oldest females known in the Bigg’s population.
Wakana’s passing gave Rainy only two options: try to find companionship with other members of the population, or survive as a lone male.
Although he mostly travels by himself, Rainy is sometimes seen with other Bigg’s families, most notably the T100Bs and the T041s. Being in his mid-40s, he seems to be in good health and visits many of the same locations he did with his mother.
This includes spending the winters up north in Alaska, from the Glacier Bay Basin southward. In the summer, his usual hunting grounds are off Clayoquot Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island and in Juan de Fuca Strait. He sometimes surprises onlookers when he pokes into busy harbours such as Sooke or even Victoria!
When Rainy swam alongside his mother, they were one of the best-known killer whale duos on the west coast. One event is always remembered when thinking of this pair.
It was Oct. 15, 2002 and the place was Ganges Harbour on Salt Spring Island north of Victoria. A 10-metre minke whale was trapped in shallow water after being driven to shore by four Bigg’s killer whales. The culprits? A mother-son pair known as Pachena (T012) and Nitinat (T012A), who had teamed up with…you guessed it—Wakana and Rainy!
The entire incident took over seven hours of intense teamwork from the four killer whales, who bit, rammed and jumped on top of the minke. For the crowd of people watching from shore, the hunt demonstrated the raw power and intelligence of these top predators and the decisive coordination involved in their hunts.
The venerable Harbeson
Known as T087 by researchers, lone male Harbeson was probably born around 1962. This means he’s turning 61 this year. That makes him the oldest known male killer whale on the coast! To give you some perspective, the average lifespan for a male killer whale is 30!
Each time we catch a glimpse of this amazing whale, we mentally prepare ourselves that it might be the last time. But to our delight, we continue to see him return. In fact, he’s already been spotted north of Victoria in early 2023!
Like Rainy, Harbeson was not always a lone male and only became one when his mother died. Due to his age, Harbeson’s family ties are not entirely known but it’s believed that his mother was T088, who died in 2011.
It’s also thought that Harbeson’s sister is Eagle (T090). Eagle is still alive, but since she’s become a successful mother to three offspring of her own, she doesn’t usually travel with Harbeson. We see them together occasionally. He’s also sometimes seen with a family known as the T124A2s.
In the past year, Harbeson has been spending time with another lone male, known as Cooper (T124C). The two were seen together in the San Juan Islands in May 2022. Two-and-a-half months later they were photographed together in southeast Alaska. And in February of this year they were seen travelling together near Vancouver! That’s a lot of travelling!
Harbeson seems to spend much of his time in southeast Alaska, particularly around Glacier Bay and Juneau. But we’re always delighted when he makes a trip south to the Salish Sea, and we can confirm that he has tacked on another year to his impressively long life!
The elusive Neilson
Known to researchers as T049C, lone male Neilson is notorious for his unpredictable travel patterns. Born in 1998, he has two living sisters Nan (T049A) and Van (T049B). His mother, T049, died sometime in 2007. Since his mother’s passing and because both sisters have growing families of their own, Neilson most often travels alone.
Neilson was known by another name when he was younger. Thought to be female, he was given the name Janet, after a whale researcher. But once it was realized he was in fact a male the name was changed to Janet’s last name, Neilson.
Neilson is not often seen mingling with other matrilines in the Bigg’s population. He is, however, occasionally seen trailing behind other families. Being a mature male, perhaps Neilson is looking for breeding opportunities. That’s probably one of the perks of being a roaming male!
Neilson sometimes buddies up with other males for extended lengths of time. One of these is Saulitis (T077A), a slightly older lone male (see below). The pair just happen to have similar notches in their dorsal fins. When they travel together, this similarity earns them the nickname “the twins,” even though to our knowledge, they’re not related.
Another occasional companion is Jude (T049A2), a younger male who more and more seems to be choosing a loner lifestyle. Jude is Neilson’s nephew, and in summer 2022 the pair were often seen together.
The mysterious Saulitis
Lone male Saulitis, known to researchers as T077A, is partly a whale of mystery and partly, well, there’s no other way to say it…a goofball. He also underwent a nickname change. He was originally named Eva to honour the memory of Alaskan killer whale researcher Eva Saulitis. When he started to sprout that massive dorsal fin, the feminine name was swapped out for Saulitis.
Saulitis was born in 1996 to Asja (T077). She’s still alive today, and has raised four other calves since her eldest son’s departure.
Why Saulitis travels alone is a mystery. The rest of his family travels together, so why doesn’t he join them? There have been occasions that Saulitis and the rest of the T077s were travelling through the Salish Sea at the same time and in close proximity, but didn’t reunite. Did Saulitis deliberately choose a life of solitude? Or did something happen and he’s no longer welcome in his family group?
We’ll never know, but it does underscore how little we know—and would like to know—about the intricacies of Bigg’s family dynamics.
Another defining characteristic of this lone male is his goofball personality. On multiple occasions, Saulitis has been observed using crab/prawn floats as playthings. He pulls the floats underneath the surface, then releases them to explode back to the surface. He also likes to drag them along as he swims.
This is not good for the fishing gear. More importantly, it’s not good for Saulitis, who risks getting entangled in the lines. Several times, his shenanigans have caused concerned onlookers to call the BC Marine Mammal Response Network for assistance. Fortunately, in each case, Saulitis managed to free himself from the gear, but not before professional whale watchers and Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans were alerted to search for him!
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Blog written by Melissa Blake, marine naturalist with Eagle Wing Tours
Published March 2023