Record number of Bigg’s killer whales spotted in the Salish Sea

It’s a big week for Bigg’s whales.

Record numbers of transient killer whales were counted off the coasts of British Columbia and Washington state on Thursday.

According to the Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWAA), whale watchers counted 10 separate groups of animals between Campbell River and Puget Sound for a new one-day record of more than 70 whales.

“The number may seem unbelievable, but it’s not an April Fool’s joke,” PWWA executive director Erin Gless said in a statement announcing the sightings.

Mark Malleson, a researcher for the Center for Whale Research and a longtime guide for Prince of Whales in Victoria, B.C., confirmed the number as a new Salish Sea record.

One of the spotted whales is known to researchers as T63 or “Chainsaw” because of its serrated dorsal fin. Chainsaw was born in 1978 and was seen with his mother near the Canada-US border on Thursday. (Val Shore/Eagle Wing Tours/Pacific Whale Watch Association)

According to Malleson, there have been days over the past decade when 50, maybe 60, Bigg have been spotted, but he said in a statement that Thursday’s tally was “astonishing”.

The largest group spotted, the PWAA said, was near the northern San Juan Islands and numbered 18 whales.

Sam Murphy of Island Adventures Whale Watching in Anacortes, Washington, was lucky enough to witness it and said in a statement that at first four whales appeared, then, suddenly, “out of nowhere, 14 more materialized.”

“It was magical,” Murphy said.

Bigg’s killer whales are the mammal-eating cousin of the endangered southern resident killer whales, which prey on declining salmon stocks.

Unlike their struggling relatives, Bigg’s whales hunt marine mammals and thrive on the abundance of seals and sea lions in the area, researchers say.

Gless said the total number was 72 and told CBC this time of year is known as the “spring surge” for Bigg’s sightings because the Salish Sea is like a snack buffet of seals right now.

“They’ve moved in. The dinner bell has rung. Word is spreading that this is the hot new restaurant in town,” Gless said.

The abundance of whales in the water right now, she said, is important for boaters to keep in mind when heading out to play.

“These whales are here, so be careful when you’re on the water,” Gless said.

She said it is essential to slow your speed and be alert whenever you see a whale watching vessel as there are most likely whales in the area.