The next group of Bigg’s (transient) killer whales we feature is the T046B family. This extraordinary family, which we see often on our whale watching tours from Victoria, has been in the world spotlight multiple times!

Let’s meet the family and learn more about what makes this group of whales stand out from the rest!

The matriarch killer whale Raksha spyhops with her head out of the water.
Raksha (T046B) / Eagle Wing Tours photo

Lots of girls!

Known as T046B by researchers, Raksha is the mother and leader of the family and has been cruising the Salish Sea since 1988. If you recall from our previous blog showcasing the T046 family, Raksha is Wake’s (T046) fourth offspring and is one of the breakaway daughters.

Raksha no longer travels alongside her mother. But Wake has no doubt passed along all the wisdom and knowledge her daughter needs to be a successful matriarch herself. Raksha now has her own family and chooses to travel separately with her offspring.

To date, Raksha has amassed quite a family of girls! She has five offspring—all females—and three grandchildren.

These individuals are: oldest daughter Tread (T046B1), born in 1998; daughter Akela (T046B2), born in 2008; daughter Sedna (T046B3), born in 2011; daughter Quiver (T046B4), born in 2013; and daughter Sol (T046B6), born in 2019. There’s also granddaughter Tsakani (T046B1A), born in 2015, and grandson Tl’uk (T046B1B) born in 2018—both the offspring of Tread.

Raksha's eldest daughter Tread swims past our boat.
Tread (T046B1) / Eagle Wing Tours photo

A playful personality

One of the most common questions we get when talking about individual whales of the Salish Sea is do they have personalities? The answer is a big yes! Some whales appear shy while others are bold, and we see all sorts of personalities in between.

Members of the T046B family are no exception. They’re known to be a curious and playful matriline, sometimes even surprising us to do some people-watching!

If you ask an Eagle Wing naturalist about memorable encounters they’ve had with Bigg’s killer whales, more often than not they’ll talk about one that included Raksha and her family!

Raksha's youngest daughter, Sol, leaps out of the water in a breach.
Sol (T046B6) / Eagle Wing Tours photo

The memorable day

When talking about the T046B family, there’s one day that stands out and is of particular interest to researchers. On this day, an interaction occurred that has never been witnessed among killer whales anywhere.

First off, you may have noticed above that T046B5 is missing in the list of family members. This fateful day explains why. Let’s go back to Dec. 2, 2016. Raksha had just given birth to her fifth offspring, T046B5, making the total family number seven individuals. This number would not last long and would soon go back to six.

Around 10 a.m. some abnormal Bigg’s killer whale vocalizations were heard over a hydrophone in Johnstone Strait off northeastern Vancouver Island. This prompted researchers to head out on the water to investigate. They identified two Bigg’s matrilines, the T068s and … yes, you guessed it… Raksha and her family, the T046Bs. For reference, the T068s are made up of a mother, T068, and her adult son, T068A.

Raksha travelling with two of her daughters, Akela and Sedna.
Front to back: Raksha, Akela and Sedna / Eagle Wing Tours photo

The event

The researchers noticed that the whales were spread apart in different groups. The T068s were travelling approximately 200 metres behind Tread, Tsakani and Quiver. These three members of the T046Bs were moving at a rapid pace of around 11 – 17 kph with the two pursuers steady on their trail. This was the first sign something was off.

It was also noticed that Quiver had fresh rake marks on her flanks and behind her dorsal fin. These wounds were from the teeth of another whale. Later, Raksha and the rest of the T046Bs, including the newborn calf, were seen travelling about a kilometre ahead.

Around midday, all nine whales converged and erratic movements and splashing followed. The behaviour from the T068s resembled a predation event, while the behaviour of the T046Bs resembled defence and protection.

As the encounter continued Raksha’s newborn calf could no longer be seen surfacing next to her. It was feared that the reason for the presence of the T068s was the calf. It wasn’t until T68A swam near the research vessel that they saw the flukes of the calf protruding from his mouth.

The mother-son pair of Bigg's killer whales known as T68 and T68A
T068 and T068A / Eagle Wing Tours photo

A desperate act

Raksha desperately tried to defend and protect her calf. Her actions and motherly instinct would later lead her to be named Raksha after the mother wolf whose name means “protection” in Hindi and who vows to fight at all costs to protect her young.

Raksha chased after T068A and rammed him with such power that the researchers could see undulations move down his body and blood spray into the air. During the chase, T068 tried get in the way of T046B and protect her son. Intense vocalizations could be heard through the hull of the research boat, even without the use of the hydrophone.

The two groups started to separate and travel further apart. T068, however, kept hold of the newborn in his mouth and swam away with his mother. He had fresh teeth wounds on both his flanks, his rostrum (nose) and at the base of his dorsal fin. T068 had fresh wounds on her melon (forehead).

Even at this point, Raksha didn’t give up. As the two groups separated she made several attempts to swim closer on her own, but always turned back to join her family. With fading light, the researchers left the scene and little T046B5 was never seen again. There was no evidence the T068s had eaten the calf.

It was the first-ever documented case anywhere of infanticide in wild killer whales, and made news around the world. The motivation for the attack is unclear. Researchers speculate that T068A drowned the calf to improve his chances of later mating with Raksha, much as male lions do in Africa when they acquire a new pride.

T68A swimming with Raksha and her family off Victoria in July 2020.
T068A with T046B (in back) and family off Victoria on July 23, 2020 / Shorelines Photography for Eagle Wing Tours

The strange reunion

There’s one more interesting twist to this story. We fast forward to July 23, 2020. Eagle Wing Tours heads out on the water for a morning tour, excited to explore the Salish Sea and find out which whales would be seen that day. To our delight we came across Raksha and her family travelling along the Victoria shoreline. To our surprise, there were two other recognizable whales present.

Drumroll please…it was the T068s! We saw no apparent conflict between the two families, who peacefully travelled together throughout the day. It left us scratching our heads—the more we learn about these whales, it seems the more questions we have!

The little "white" whale known as Tl'uk surfaces next to his mother.
Tl’uk (T046B1B) / Jane Wilson Photography for Eagle Wing Tours

The white whale

But that’s not the only claim to fame for the T046Bs. Another family member has become quite the celebrity gaining a lot of media attention worldwide—Raksha’s grandson, T046B1B. What sets him apart is his distinctly pale colour.

He was given the nickname TI’uk, the Coast Salish word meaning moon and a direct reference to his unusual greyish-white colour.

It’s unknown if TI’uk suffers from a rare genetic disorder known as Chédiak-Higashi syndrome, which results in pale skin pigmentation, a compromised immune system and below average life expectancy. Or whether he’s leucistic and simply lacks the normal pigmentation of a killer whale. We do know that he’s not an albino, as his eyes lack the characteristic red colour and his body is a mix of whites, greys and blacks.

There have been a few other white whales in the West Coast Bigg’s population before Tl’uk. And there are records of several white whales in the California and Russian populations.

A group shot of Raksha and her family.
The T046Bs / Eagle Wing Tours photo

Some unsettling news

Sadly, the T046Bs have been seen multiple times since April 2021 and TI’uk was not with them. He’s now designated as “missing.” Among Bigg’s killer whales, dispersal is known to happen. But because TI’uk is still a very young whale (the equivalent of a human toddler), his absence is concerning. We remain hopeful that we’ll see TI’uk again. But we’re also preparing for the probability that this engaging little white whale has passed on.

Join us on a tour for your chance to see Raksha and her family, and to learn more about the whales and wildlife 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 April 11, 2022