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The rich cultural traditions that have evolved in killer whale societies are among the most advanced seen in any non-human mammal. In their underwater vocalizations, for example, the whales have developed remarkably complicated systems of dialects that serve to identify family groups, prevent inbreeding within pods, and provide for sophisticated transfer of important "real-time" information. Although the whales communication patterns do not yet represent a human-type language, they are clearly headed in that evolutionary direction.
Just as we have begun to accept and better understand this very unusual resident/transient situation on the west coast, over the last few years we have discovered yet another, evidently distinct, population of killer whales in the region. This population seems to spend its time off the outer coast, and hence we have called them "offshores." These whales appear to have a smaller body size and rounder dorsal fin than residents or transients, they live in big groups of 50 to 100, they range widely, and we dont yet have any idea of their diet. In many ways, the recent discovery of offshores highlights the fact that there is still much to learn about this remarkable species.
Despite the protection and reverence that orcas enjoy today, their future on Canadas west coast is by no means secure. Competition for dwindling fish stocks, particularly salmon, is making it harder for resident whales to "make their season" during the summer and fall migration, so they may not be accumulating fat reserves to make it through lean times during the winter. Industrial contaminants accumulate up the food web, ending up concentrating in the blubber of killer whales, especially transients. Even whale-watching may be detrimental to the whales. At times, resident pods may be surrounded by over 100 whale-watch boats, and it seems intuitive that this commotion must be disrupting to the whales. Underwater noise from these vessels and other ship traffic along the coast may well be interfering with the whales ability to communicate and use their echolocation for finding food and navigating.
We are now entering a new phase in our relationship with the orcas of British Columbia. We have gone from persecution to adulation of the species, but now we must focus on conservation. The southern community of resident killer whales has recently been listed as Endangered in Canada. Although scientific studies will continue to reveal more about their natural history and behaviour, more and more we must direct our research efforts towards finding solutions to the various impacts we are having on the whales and their habitat. Only through a solid foundation of knowledge can we identify conservation issues as they develop, and take the necessary steps to mitigate them. With dedicated hard work and political will, future generations will be able to share in the thrill and wonder of experiencing killer whales on the wild west coast.