Bigg time




Through conservation efforts and education, humans have finally made space for our supernatural neighbours, the iconic great hunters of the oceans, Bigg’s orca! They are also referred to as transient orca, or transient killer whales. Bigg’s are nomadic hunters, apex predators that feed on marine mammals. They are genetically distinct from salmon-eating resident orca whales, and have their own unique acoustics and cultures.

I have been an ecotour guide and naturalist working around Comox and Campbell River for almost a decade. I currently co-own Wild Waterways Adventures (WWA), a sustainable adventure tourism company based in Campbell River. In this short span of time, I have watched many Bigg’s matrilines (orca families are led by a matriarch) grow in numbers, with their presence in our waters increasing season after season.

With the resurgence of whale activity in the Salish Sea, both boat-based and land-based whale watching are thriving. The love for Bigg’s and their life histories has skyrocketed! We are continually learning more about their behaviours, needs, and seasonal movements. The mood in the 21st century has certainly changed regarding orca whales.

However, this was not always the case. To understand the fragility and fortitude of the Bigg’s orca clans, and the ecosystems they depend on, we need to look to the past. Understanding the history of these whales cultivates an even deeper reverence and respect for what they have endured and overcome.

The Dark Ages

The 19th and 20th centuries were a dark time for all whales in the Salish Sea. Right through the 1960s, an archaic mindset held by the public and commercial fishermen deemed all orca whales as monsters, fierce apex predators to compete with. For centuries not much was known about them; people did not even know there were different ecotypes and cultures of orca until 1970s, when marine biologist Dr. Michael Bigg began studying them (Bigg’s orca are named after him).


In the mid-twentieth century, orca whales were subjected to gunfire and depth charges in more than one location around the world, including Canada. In the early 1960s, a 50-calibre machine gun was mounted above Seymour Narrows in Campbell River with the intention to shoot every orca that passed by. However, it was never fired due to concerns about wildfire ignition and possible risk to humans.

Prey Scarcity

The shooting of orca whales was accepted and even encouraged by local governments back then, and they also shot Steller sea lions, one of the orcas’ main sources of food. Predator control programs were initiated by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada to protect salmon stock populations for commercial fisheries. Between 1910 and 1970, numerous rookeries (sea lion breeding colonies), were essentially wiped out by gunfire.

Large commercial harvests between 1879 and 1914, and again between 1962 and 1968, are thought to have depleted harbour seal populations, another main food source for Bigg’s. And porpoise populations diminished due to being caught as incidental bycatch from commercial fisheries. Essentially, no food, no Bigg’s. For decades, sightings of Bigg’s orca decreased year after year.

CVC Vol37 Orcas Gallery

Moby Doll

In the 1960s and early 1970s, hundreds of wild orcas were captured to be put into marine theme parks. This practice took a toll on orca whales here in British Columbia and south of the border. The 1964 capture of a young male resident orca for the Vancouver Aquarium would prove to be a historic moment for orcas worldwide. After surviving being harpooned off Saturna Island, only to be towed all the way to a Vancouver dry dock, then put on display in a pen off Jericho Beach, “Moby Doll” captured the hearts and minds of the public in a positive way.

Moby Doll passed away after 87 days in captivity. Although it was tragic to watch his story unfold, it was the beginning of the end of the stereotype that made people cringe when they thought of orca whales.

Shifting paradigms and renewed hope

Many whale enthusiasts are familiar with the story of the Budd Inlet Six, a group of whales captured in 1976 in Washington state to be sold to aquariums. Due to intense media scrutiny and a massive public outcry, the whales were eventually released back into the wild. This event marked the end of the live capture era.

One of these whales went on to become the legendary Bigg’s matriarch named T046 (Wake). In her lifetime, she gave life to eight offspring, 15 grand-calves, and five great-grand-calves. In addition, her sons T046D & T046E are sexually mature, so they may have fathered even more grand-calves: however, only the females’ offspring are recorded. T046 was approximately 57 when she passed away in 2023. Her passing was mourned by many, but her legacy brings hope for the west coast transient population.

Marine biologists who track West Coast transient orca whale activity recorded a population of more than 500 individuals in 2023. The matrilines are expanding and sightings of Bigg’s orca are increasing greatly, especially off eastern Vancouver Island. They’re not so “transient” anymore, either: more abundant prey is keeping these Bigg’s orca more local than ever before in modern times.

I would also assume they feel safe and respected here as well, because, make no mistake: they remember the past.

Conservation and education

Conservation and education are at the forefront of this wave of change. Locally based nonprofits like the North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association (NIMMSA) and the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) are leading the way on conservation initiatives and best practices. Government agencies, nonprofits, and other stakeholders in the industry help protect these whales for the greater good with programs like Be Whale Wise. And sustainable adventure tourism businesses play a vital role in education and help set new standards for sustainable business practices in the industry.

While the West Coast transient orca whales are increasing in numbers, they are still vulnerable to toxins in the waterways, noise pollution, and vessel strikes. It is vital that the public hold government agencies accountable, take precautions on the water, and take action to create a sustainable future for all life within our homes and businesses.

No more apathy, only hope and accountability. Let us all continue to foster a deep reverence for our whale neighbours that will echo into future generations. Let us celebrate their homecoming and joy of life.