By Julia Magsombol 

Local Journalism Initiative 

[email protected]

Orcas, who are known as killer whales, might be known as dangerous due to their sharp teeth, but to Indigenous people they mean something more.

Orcas in BC 

Killer whales in B.C. are some of the best-studied whales in the world. Three kinds of orca exist in B.C. 

There are northern and southern resident whales who stay on Vancouver Island. Then there are the transient orcas, who swim from California and Mexico and who spend most of their time far from shore.

 In B.C., orcas live in the Coast and Mountain and Georgia Depression eco-provinces.

In terms of appearance, they are the largest member of the dolphin family. They can grow up to 10 metres long, comparable to a bus. Each orca has a unique white patch around its fin base. They also have a white belly and a white patch behind their eye. Their bodies and tails are also very long. 

As killer whales, they are known for their teeth, in both the top and bottom of their mouths. Resident orcas eat cold-blooded sea creatures such as octopuses. Transient orcas eat mammals, including sea lions. They come up to the shore to hunt for them and get their food. On the other hand, offshore orcas eat a combination of both fish and mammals. 

Their lifecycles

Most female orcas give birth when they reach the age of 15 years old. An orca only gives birth to one baby at a time. The baby orcas have a long lifetime lasting from 30 to 70 years. Female orcas are in menopause in their early 40s. 

Are orcas endangered in Canada? 

One of the populations of orca, the southern residents, is endangered. According to the federal government there are only 75 killer whales left as of March 2021.  

They also face threats in the form of contaminants. Unfortunately, they have some of world’s highest pollution levels in their bodies (for mammals). Most orcas are also sensitive to noise, so they often face physical disturbance. A decline of Chinook salmon, their primary prey, also adds to their endangerment. Sadly, most of them face human-related threats including being captured for aquariums and marine centres. 

Orcas have essential roles in their ecosystem. They are on top of the food chain, so they help regulate the populations of other marine species. 

Orcas in Indigenous communities 

In the Indigenous community orcas often symbolize luck, compassion, and family. They are also known as the guardians and protectors of the sea, and to some, they represent the strong bonds of each family due to their strong group behaviours. 

According to the Spirits of the West Coast Gallery, the orca protects those who travel away from home. 

 Many Indigenous artists, such as Richard Krentz, a Coast Salish artist, make beautiful Orca Spirit jewelry collections. He is a member of the Indigenous Peoples of the Northwest Coast, living in British Columbia. 

With First Nation people, if a killer whale is seen offshore, it is sometimes believed to be a deceased chief trying to communicate with his loved ones. Some Indigenous nations believe that orcas are also reincarnations of their former chiefs lost at sea. 

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