On 28 May 2003, Eric Simkin, an employee at Langara Fishing Lodge, photographed a group of more than 30 killer whales at Langara Island, off the northwest corner of the Queen Charlotte Islands, about 25 nautical miles South of Alaska. The photo IDs were collected using a camera provided by the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre and the Pacific Biological Station, and funded by the federal Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk.
The photos were sent to Dr. John Ford and Graeme Ellis of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Upon developing the film, Ford and Ellis were able to confirm that the whales seen off Langara Island were members of K and L pods, two of the three pods that make up the southern resident group of killer whales. Previously, it was believed that these pods only frequented the southern Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound during the summer and fall months. According to killer whale researcher Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard of the Vancouver Aquarium, Langara Island is a hot spot for chinook salmon, a favourite food of the whales. “They may very well have been following their prey,” said Dr. Barrett-Lennard.
The vast coast of B.C. is home to more than 23 species of cetacean (whales, dolphins and porpoises), however tracking their whereabouts year round is near impossible without the help of the public. “There are only a handful of people living on Langara Island during the winter, so it’s conceivable that the whales visit every winter and no one has noticed them until now.” According to Dr. Barrett-Lennard, developing a better understanding of where the whales go in the winter is crucial to protecting them. “Most demographic events – births and deaths – happen in the winter, when we know little about where they are and what conditions they face. This is especially important in the care of the southern residents, which are listed as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and as Depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act in the United States. In order to conserve any animal, we need to know as much as we can about it.”
The previously-known northern extent of K and L pods’ range was just north of Vancouver Island. This Langara Island encounter is about 500 km northwest of that. The encounter extends the known range of these pods to about 2000 km of coastline, from Monterey Bay, California to Langara Island, B.C. “In 30 years of focused research, it’s only been in the last few that we have discovered that their range extends much beyond southern B.C. and Washington. This new understanding demonstrates that there are still major discoveries to be made about these animals,” said Dr. Barrett-Lennard. The whales, which were eastbound at the time they were seen near Langara Island, appeared off Victoria on the morning of June 4, 2003 – a minimum journey of approximately 1000 km in 7 days.