“Prolific” is a word often used to describe the next featured group of whales in our Family Matters series: the esteemed T046 family of Bigg’s (transient) killer whales!
There are many other words that we can use as descriptors, such as “resilient,” “renowned” or “historic.” But prolific certainly tops the list for this beloved family of five, which we encounter often on our whale watching tours from Victoria.
Let’s meet the family and hear about their successful journey—a journey that was so close to being taken away!
A prolific bloodline
Known as T046 by researchers, Wake is the mother and leader of the family. She’s thought to be around 55 years old with an estimated birth year of 1966. Named after a spy hero of the French Resistance in World War II, this matriarch has earned quite a reputation.
For starters, her estimated age makes her one of the oldest females in the population. She certainly has the progeny to prove it! Wake holds the record for the most offspring, with at least eight confirmed or presumed calves!
Four of these calves travel with her to this day. There’s possible daughter Centeki (T122) born around 1982, eldest son Strider (T046D) born in 2000, son Thor (T046E) born in 2003, and youngest son Loki (T046F) born in 2012.
Wake’s count of eight progeny is an outstanding number given that female killer whales have an average of five calves in their lifetime. They usually give birth to their first calf at 12-14 years of age. They have their last calf around age 40. This is when the post-reproductive phase of their lives begins. Yes, killer whales also go through what we know as menopause and continue in the family as post-reproductive females!
Due to their lengthy gestation period of 15 to 18 months, killer whales give birth on average every three to five years. Do the math, and using the word “prolific” to describe Wake might even be an understatement!
The family tree
Wake’s other offspring no longer travel with her. Her oldest, daughter T046A, died many years ago. But her other three daughters have since split off to form families of their own. These females are known as Sidney (T123), Raksha (T046B) and Carmanah (T046C).
It’s common practice for females in the Bigg’s killer whale population to separate from their mother and form their own family unit. This keeps the number of whales in each matriline small to match their hunting lifestyle. But from time to time, we do see the extended families come together for a reunion!
Let’s look at the extended T046 family. Wake has at least 12 living grandchildren, two deceased grandchildren and two great grandchildren. That accounts for 24 whales in this bloodline, with Wake as the common denominator. As such, Wake has the biggest family tree among all females in the entire inner coast Bigg’s population!
The Budd Inlet Six
It shows how important every female is in populations that are slow to reproduce. On a memorable day in the mid-1970s, the success of this beloved bloodline was soooo close to being erased before it even got started. We take you back to March 7, 1976.
Six years after the capture in Pedder Bay of another Bigg’s family, featured in a previous blog, the lives of another group of killer whales were forever changed. Over the course of three days, six whales were herded into Budd Inlet off Olympia in Washington State. These whales were later identified as T013, T014, T026, T027, T047 and, you guessed it, T046 (Wake)!
The whales stood no chance against the onslaught of speedboats, a seaplane, a gillnetter, a trawler and dozens of explosives. By nightfall on the third day, the whales were trapped. Like the infamous Pedder Bay capture before it, the whales were caught with the intention of selling them to marine parks for exploitation. Each animal was valued at $60,000 to $100,000. The cost of holding them in Budd Inlet would be a hefty $5,000 per day—a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things, in the view of the captors.
The end of captures
One whale managed to quickly escape the netted prison. But freedom eluded the other five whales. Killer whales are social animals and the bonds they form among family members are lifelong. It came as no surprise that the unidentified escapee would later return to join its relatives.
These events took place at a time when the capture and sale of killer whales in the Pacific Northwest was beginning to arouse strong opposition. When word of this particularly brutal capture reached Seattle newspapers, it was the precursor to the end of the killer whale capture era in Washington State. Budd Inlet would be the last live capture of killer whales in the Salish Sea. It would prove to be a benchmark moment in our relationship with killer whales.
In the end, after weeks of deliberation and lengthy court sessions, the capture permit was revoked because the capture method was deemed inhumane. This, coupled with reports of an incoming storm that could threaten the health of the whales, led to the Budd Inlet Six being released.
It was a second chance for Wake, who would go on to become the most prolific mother in the Salish Sea.
Centeki and the Sockeye Moon
Then there’s Centeki (T122). Let’s dive a bit deeper into her story. Centeki gets her name from the Sockeye Moon. Recognized as one of the 13 moons of the Coast Salish lunar calendar, the Sockeye Moon takes place from May to June and marks the return of the first salmon (sockeye) for the W̱SÁNEĆ people.
When the Pacific Northwest whale watching community first met Centeki we weren’t certain who she was or where she fit in to the T046 family. We broke out our detective hats and played a game of “Who’s That Whale?”
Thirteen years after the disappearance of her daughter, T046A, Wake was seen swimming alongside an unidentified female thought to be around the same age as her missing calf. But after close inspection of identifying markings (saddle patches, dorsal fins and eyepatches) it was concluded that the mystery whale was not T046A.
To this day, Centeki (T122) remains close with Wake and the two are never sighted far apart. It’s suspected that she is Wake’s daughter, but we have no genetic analysis to prove it. It’s also possible that Centeki has been adopted by Wake and/or the two share a close ancestor. This would not be unheard of.
At the approximate age of 39, Centeki is nearing reproductive senescence. Over the years, she hasn’t been seen with a calf of her own and it’s possible that she’s barren. Whether or not this is the case, her role as a caregiver, hunter and teacher has likely proved invaluable in the development of younger members of the Bigg’s killer whale population.
The breakaway daughters
What about Wake’s other daughters? In upcoming blogs we’ll feature the breakaway daughters of the T046 family tree—Sidney (T123), Raksha (T46B) and Carmanah (T046C).
Join us on a tour to possibly see Wake—or one of her many progeny—and learn more about the whales of the Salish Sea! To book a tour give us a call or book online
Blog written by Melissa Blake, marine naturalist with Eagle Wing Tours
Published March 7, 2022