'It was a special day': Transient orcas set sightings record as population thrives on B.C. coast

A breaching Bigg's killer whale, known as T37A or "Volker." (Bart Rulon, Puget Sound Express, PWWA)

Nearly 30 transient orcas were spotted in the Salish Sea around British Columbia and Washington state over the Labour Day weekend, a positive sign for the species, according to local whale watchers and researchers.

The Washington-based Orca Behavior Institute says the transients – or Bigg’s killer whales – set a new record for the most annual sightings in the region over the weekend, with 793 unique sightings reported this year.

The previous record of 747 unique sightings was set in 2019, according to the institute.

Institute director Monika Wieland Shields said in a statement Wednesday that 70 Bigg’s killer whales were documented in the region in August.

Captain Paul Pudwell of Sooke Coastal Explorations came upon seven families of Bigg’s orcas on Saturday, according to a statement from the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

“I’ve never seen so many Bigg’s at once,” said Pudwell. “It was a special day.”

Unlike the endangered southern resident killer whales that feed primarily on declining populations of chinook salmon, Bigg’s killer whales hunt seals, sea lions, and porpoises, the whale watch association said.

An abundance of food has led to the births of more than 130 calves over the last decade, a population growth rate of more than four per cent per year, according to the group.

“The contrast in health between these two orca populations is striking,” said Erin Gless, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. “Bigg’s prove that killer whales can thrive in this region, so long as there is food. If we can restore local salmon populations, we have hope that southern residents can recover. The priority has to be getting them more food.”