Orca Tribes of the Salish Sea and Beyond

by: Posted on: September 04, 2012

Photo: Howard Garrett

By Howard Garrett, author and co-founder of Orca Network

Editor’s Note: The oceans of the Pacific Northwest are home to two distinct Orca cultures. Read below to learn about their history and the lessons they can teach us.


Unlike humans, orcas have had no predators for their entire 8-10 million year evolutionary history. While our ancestors were being stalked and ripped apart by ferocious cats and bears, pods of orcas were cruising throughout the world’s oceans without a worry. In all that time orcas have had huge brains, able to devise complex cooperative behaviors and sophisticated cultures. They’ve lived millions of years as self-aware mammals in which to experiment with strategies for finding plenty of food for the whole family, without the stress and dangers of competition or hostilities within or between groups.

A review of the 3 or 4 dozen orca communities found worldwide – each with its own vocabulary of vocalizations and genetically distinct from all the others – shows that each group long ago narrowed its diet to just a few species of fish or mammals among the vast marine smorgasbord they are capable of eating, thus avoiding competition with neighboring orca communities. With an overall world population probably under 50,000, orcas also seem to avoid overpopulating their habitats or depleting their food sources. Each group is an extended family or clan of usually only a few hundred individuals that almost always avoids any interaction, benign or hostile, or any interbreeding with other populations, even though they may cross paths on a regular basis and are certainly aware of each other. Human communities, by contrast, have long had a habit of attacking and wiping out “others” throughout our history, whether for material gain or to dominate territory, or simply on a whim. Maybe we’re still novices at conscious self-awareness.

Most orca communities are found in cold, remote, uninhabited seas, like the Bering Sea, the North Atlantic, Kamchatka or Antarctica. The calm and well-traveled waters of the Salish Sea, however, provide vital year-round habitat for two of these orca communities – both the salmon-eating Southern Residents, now listed as Endangered at a precarious population size of about 85, and the mammal-eating “transient” orcas (aka “Bigg’s killer whales”), with about 350 spread out from California to Alaska. The mammal-eaters are doing quite well these days due to the recent increase in seal populations, but the Southern Residents have been severely impacted for decades, by hostile humans, mass captures for marine parks, persistent pollutants, and most critically, the decimation of the primary item on their menu: Chinook salmon. The possibility that off coast US Navy training exercises are also harming orcas has only deepened concerns.

The realization that orcas develop sophisticated cultures is very new to the scientific community. Prior to the early 1970s there were no systematic studies into the lives of orcas. Native beliefs often held high regard for them, seeing orcas as rulers of the sea just as humans are rulers on land; certainly some seafaring sages must have sensed the orcas’ majestic demeanor in their powerful lunges and precise teamwork, nonetheless, popular conception of the killer whale was simply of a vicious predator. Orcas were routinely shot on sight in the Salish Sea and worldwide. They were massacred in the Antarctic, Japan, and North Atlantic only decades ago.

Namu, the first performing captive orca in 1965, changed those attitudes for North Americans in less than a year, which was how long he survived captivity in Puget Sound. Namu was an adolescent male captured in British Columbia who showed the world that he was gentle, responsive, and could learn and even teach trust-building games that thrilled audiences, like gingerly taking fish offered from the hands of small girls.

Such congeniality from an 8,000 pound predator opened many an eye to the possibility that they had underestimated orcas. Despite this there was still little understanding of the local orca populations, their life cycles, or anything about their families or social lives. That knowledge first appeared in the late 1970s after Canada hired marine biologist Mike Bigg to conduct a survey to see how many orcas there were in the inland waters, and whether they were being depleted by captures. The US then hired Ken Balcomb to count the same orcas. Their contracts ended after a year, but realizing that these were astoundingly advanced mammals that nobody knew anything about, Bigg and Balcomb continued their field studies, based on Bigg’s innovative photo-identification methodology. By the early 1980s their work had yielded results unprecedented in wildlife biology.

First, they discovered that offspring don’t disperse from their mother’s side for life, or from her family even after she dies. They found that orca life spans are much like human life spans; matrilines of up to five generations remain bonded for life, always within vocal contact.

About then they began to realize that although most of the orcas they studied traveled and foraged in large groups from 12 up to 80 or more, there were also small groups of 2 to 5, usually stalking around rocky shores where seals were plentiful. Bigg and Balcomb were the first to describe two separate and distinct types of orcas inhabiting the same waters. As the dietary, acoustic, and genetic research eventually confirmed, the fish-eating “residents” and mammal-eating “transients” were the first known examples of orca cultures.

We human residents of the Salish Sea watershed are fortunate to live near shorelines with occasional views of two of these ancient traditional orca cultures traveling throughout these waters, foraging for their respective prey, socializing and communicating, as they have for millions of years.


6 Responses to “Orca Tribes of the Salish Sea and Beyond”

  • Great article. I will post it, hoping many more people will see it.
    by: Linda Moore KUrthon: Tuesday 4th of September 2012
  • Excellent informative article - will humans ever learn?
    by: Sandra Pollardon: Tuesday 4th of September 2012
  • Orcas are the top predators in the ocean, man is top predator on land , when species crash the top predators are first.
    by: Stephen Rahnon: Wednesday 5th of September 2012
  • There is much we can learn from these beings. Thank you.
    by: Abe Cohenon: Wednesday 5th of September 2012
  • This article made me realize how little I knew about whales. I found myself looking up more information about Namu. I am interested in more animal articles on RTD for I think it is really interesting how animals form little sub communities within regions. 
    by: Anna Bakeron: Wednesday 5th of September 2012
  • excellent and informative!! thank you!!!
    by: carolon: Thursday 6th of September 2012

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