Saturday, March 02, 2013


At some point during Newfoundland and Labrador's summer whale watching season, usually late July or August, the word goes out that killer whales, or orcas (Orcinus orca), have been sighted in one of the province's many bays. The call goes out all along the shore -- these big predators are fascinating and exciting to watch. These are transient pods, meat-eaters, and they're on the hunt, often for minke whales. Unlike resident orca pods, these transient pods are dedicated hunters of mammals. Their feeding habits are so ingrained and so markedly different from those of resident pods, that there's actually a move to recognize similar transient whales in the North Pacific as having developed into a separate species, Biggs Killer Whales, named in honour of researcher Micheal Biggs.

Although visits from these whales are relatively rare, they occur regularly enough that they have afforded some opportunity for research and identification. Photographs of the whales' dorsal fins, the pale "saddle" patches on their backs, and their other distinctive markings have shown us that there are at least four distinct groups or pods, designated A through D by observers. While they are most often observed around the coast of the Northern Peninsula and Labrador, they make occasional forays around the entire coast of Newfoundland in search of a likely-looking food source. In the August of 2011, several attacks on prey species were documented around the Avalon Peninsula and there are numerous photographs and video recordings of their kills; the pod involved was D pod, identified by the V-notched dorsal of its lead female and the crinkled, forward-raked dorsal of the pod's largest male.

Orcas are no newcomers to the shores of Newfoundland, as illustrated by the carved-bone orca effigies found at Port au Choix National Historic Site, where evidence of settlement spans some 4000 years. They're still fascinating to residents and visitors alike.

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