2022 Was Record Year for Bigg’s Killer Whales, Humpback Whales, and Protective Sentinel Actions
Whale Watchers, Researchers Reflect on Bountiful Year of Sightings in Salish Sea
SEATTLE, WA & VICTORIA, BC – January 11, 2023 – 2022 saw record-breaking numbers of Bigg’s killer whales and humpback whales spotted in the waters of British Columbia and Washington state, among continued signs of progress within the Salish Sea ecosystem, according to year-end data compiled by the Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA) and local research organizations.
According to the PWWA, which operates year-round whale watching tours in and around the Salish Sea, Bigg’s killer whales and humpback whales were the two types most frequently documented by whale watchers in 2022, reported by PWWA crewmembers on 278 days and 274 days, respectively. Gray whales were reported by the PWWA on 200 days, and minke whales on 158 days of the year. While the salmon-eating Southern Resident killer whale population remains endangered and is rarely encountered by professional whale watchers, Bigg’s killer whales feed on marine mammals, and have been increasing steadily for the past decade.
The Orca Behavior Institute (OBI), which compiles sightings from whale watchers, regional sightings groups, and community scientists, recently announced that there were 1,221 unique sightings of Bigg’s killer whales throughout the Salish Sea in 2022. A unique sighting is a sighting of a specific group of whales on a single day and does not include repeat reports of the same whales on the same day. That number is 154 sightings more than 2021’s record, and double the number of Bigg’s sightings five years ago in 2017. During 2022, the PWWA reported a single-day record with more than 70 Bigg’s killer whales spread in area waters from Hood Canal in Washington to Vancouver Island’s Campbell River region in British Columbia.
According to BC research group Bay Cetology, the coastal Bigg’s population continues to grow, with approximately 370 individuals including 10 new calves welcomed in 2022. Formerly dubbed “transient” killer whales because they were seen infrequently decades ago, their growing presence has prompted the research and whale watching communities to transition toward the new moniker, Bigg’s killer whales, after pioneering killer whale researcher Dr. Michael Bigg.
“When Bigg’s were first studied in the Salish Sea, it was just after the implementation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act,” says Monika Wieland Shields, Director of Orca Behavior Institute. “In the decades since, seals, sea lions, and porpoises have all recovered in spectacular fashion. The Salish Sea can now support many more killer whales than it used to, and clearly word has spread.”
“HUMPBACK COMEBACK” CONTINUES
While the Salish Sea has long been known for its killer whales, it is fast-becoming recognized as one of the best places to observe humpback whales as well. Researchers with the Canadian Pacific Humpback Collaboration recently announced that 396 individual humpback whales were photographed in the Salish Sea over the course of the 2022 season, the highest number documented in a single year for at least the past century. The figure includes a record-breaking 34 mothers with calves who traveled from their tropical birthing grounds in Hawaii, Mexico, and Central America. According to the PWWA, the previous record of 21 humpback calves was set in 2021. Humpback whales are another Salish Sea success story, growing in number since protective measures prohibiting the commercial hunting of the species were enacted in the 1960’s.
“2022 was a memorable year full of record sightings and dozens of new calves,” says Erin Gless, Executive Director of the PWWA. “20 years ago, it was rare to see humpbacks or Bigg’s killer whales in the Salish Sea. Now, we see them almost every day. It really demonstrates what’s possible if animals have an ample food supply.”
MORE THAN 1,000 PROTECTIVE ACTIONS IN 2022
In addition to whale sightings, the PWWA also collects data on sentinel actions, or protective interventions performed by professional whale watchers during the course of a wildlife tour. Examples include stopping other vessels from speeding near whales, alerting ferries, cargo ships, or military vessels when whales are nearby, retrieving harmful debris like derelict fishing gear and balloons, and reporting entangled or injured wildlife to proper authorities.
In 2022, PWWA captains, naturalists, and crewmembers documented 1,066 sentinel actions. Of the 740 vessel-related sentinel actions, the PWWA was successful in modifying the behavior of other nearby vessels in 74% of interactions. The association also removed more than 300 pieces of marine debris and reported 20 injured or entangled whales and sea lions to local rescue teams. Additionally, the PWWA provided real-time whale sightings to emergency responders during the recovery of the sunken vessel Aleutian Isle near San Juan Island last summer.