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Orcas of the Northwest AtlanticOrcas of the Northwest Atlantic

by Dave Snowby Dave Snow

The orcas in the western Atlantic have received little study. We know they were common enough to serve as a prominent subject for the art and rituals of the people who lived in Newfoundland and Labrador 3,000 years ago. The most famous artifacts taken from Port aux Choix National Historic Site on the west coast of the island of Newfoundland are orca effigies carved in bone. These people lived off the whales, seals, salmon, and cod of the rich north Atlantic as did the orcas they undoubtedly shared the coastline with. Today orcas are considered to be a rare sight in the west Atlantic from Nova Scotia south.
There are no known studies of northwest Atlantic orcas until after World War II. Early European art works tell us they were observed in the 1500s when the first whalers came to Newfoundland and Labrador, but since orcas were too fast, too small, and maybe too smart to catch, they were probably ignored.
With the more modern whaling practices in the 19th century, orcas became the hunting partners of human whalers. They sometimes waited outside North American ports such as Gloucester, Provincetown and Bedford joining whaling boats as they left port on their hunts. Once at sea, the orcas chased larger whales towards the waiting harpoons of the whalers and attacked the panicked whales from below while the harpoons rained down from above. After World War I, the iron boats of the whalers turned their harpoons on the orcas, now viewed as competitors, and soon the orcas learned to avoid humans.
The orcas continued to be ignored — or just occasionally hunted — until after World War II when commercial fishermen and whalers began to consider them a competitor for the ever dwindling number of large whales. In Iceland, the government encouraged the American Navy to use orcas as living targets for anti-submarine warfare exercises. In April 1954, Time magazine reported, “… killer whales… savage sea cannibals with teeth like bayonets… one was caught with 14 seals and 13 porpoises in its belly… have destroyed thousands of dollars worth of fishing tackle… Icelandic Government appealed to the U.S., which has thousands of men stationed at a lonely NATO airbase. The bored G.I.s responded with enthusiasm… one posse of Americans… in one morning wiped out a pack of 100 killers… “.
The whalers of Newfoundland also contributed to what must have been a major decline in northwest Atlantic orca numbers. Captain Henry Mahle of Dildo, Conception Bay was the province’s last whaling captain and reports occasionally shooting orcas off Newfoundland waters until 1972, when Canada banned commercial whaling. And during the 1940s and 1950s Norwegian whalers took small numbers of orcas all around the Newfoundland and Labrador coast. The largest group, consisting of six orcas, was killed about 90 kilometres due east of Battle Harbour, Labrador.
In 1979 Memorial University ‘s Whale Research Group under the leadership of Dr. Jon Lien began to systematically catalogue the whales around Newfoundland. About the same time, other academic organizations along the Atlantic coast began looking at the various types of whales and the size of their various populations. Orcas were occasionally seen around Newfoundland and Labrador by lighthouse keepers, Wildland Tours holiday groups, and other interested observers, but they never stayed in a given area for more than a day or two.
For example, our own anecdotal records and more detailed trip lists show orcas made brief appearances around the Newfoundland coast throughout the summers of 1994 to 2007. Every summer observers would report orcas from places such as the Bay of Islands, Twillingate, Bay Bulls, Ferryland and Quidi Vidi. The sighting would typically last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, but the next day the whales would be gone.
A St. John’s harbour tour boat reported one of the best 1997 sightings — a pod of six adults with a very small calf. One of the whales had a seal in its mouth for several hours. The orcas appeared on August 1 off Cape Spear and appear to have frightened off the area’s humpbacks and minkes. No other whales were seen on that day; however, high numbers of both humpback and minke were consistently seen — every trip, seven days a week — for several weeks before and after the orca sighting. It seems that orcas do not always frighten away other whales; our holiday groups have observed orcas near humpbacks, minkes, and/or white beaked dolphins on at least a dozen occasions.
The year 2002 provided some of our company’s most dramatic orca watching adventures. On July 19, Mary Hughes of Connecticut watched a group of orcas from the Labrador ferry as she participated in our Viking Trail Experience tour. On July 25 she was in St. John’s participating in our Whale Study Week program when the thirty humpbacks in the area all started making loud flippering, lobtailing and breaching displays. The horizon filled with humpbacks doing acrobatics. Minutes later Mary’s group spotted six orcas. The photographic target switched from individual humpback tails and markings to individual orca dorsal fins and Mary’s group was able to get useful identification shots of all six animals, including one large male. We now refer to this group as A-pod.
Mary and the rest of our party spent over two hours with this group of six, and added some wonderful new images to our small but growing provincial orca catalogue. This catalogue is the first attempt at systematically studying this region’s orcas. This particular group was photographed several times off our portion of eastern Newfoundland between June to October 2002. After 25-plus years of field work and regular, intense summer-time whale observation efforts in this region, 2002 marked the first time a pod of orcas appeared to stay near shore in the Avalon (southern Newfoundland ) area for longer than a few days.
As our knowledge of local orca behaviour and distribution grows we have been able to identify several family groups which have been seen in Newfoundland and Labrador waters — some over a number of years. These families are recognized by the dorsal fin photos of the males plus some of the females. Individual markings are also allowing us to identify individual orcas.
On July 19, 2002 we received reports of orca pods from Twillingate, St. Anthony, St. John’s, and between St. Barbe and Blanc Sablon. The distances between these places confirms there is a minimum of four groups that sometimes occupy Newfoundland and Labrador coastal waters.
From our years of observation, it seems apparent that orcas around the Atlantic followed the “transient” lifestyle reported from British Columbia and Alaska. Researchers such as British Columbia ‘s John Ford found that some orcas, referred to as “resident”, remained in an area feeding off salmon and other marine resources. These whales tend to be quite vocal and predictable in their movements within a home range. Other orcas, termed “transients”, follow a nomadic lifestyle, quietly swimming hundreds or thousands of miles in pursuit of fish, seals, small whales and larger whales. The BC and Alaska residents are the world’s most studied and best known wild whales. The transients appear to feed exclusively on marine mammals (seals and whales) while the residents appear to be exclusively fish eaters. Fish in the salmon family are especially prominent in the diet of resident Pacific orcas. In the Atlantic, salmon are most abundant off Greenland and Newfoundland/Labrador. Participants in past Wildland Tours expeditions have seen orcas spend time engaged in what appears to be fishing activity near well known commercial salmon fishing locations; and a link between orca distribution and salmon distribution does seem reasonable for Atlantic waters.
The orcas of Norway (eastern North Atlantic) also follow a transient life history as they move from the fjords of Norway to the coast of Iceland. Despite having a “transient” life history there are times — such as when the fjords are filled with herring or salmon — when transients can be reliably sighted. No “resident” whales have ever been reported from the Atlantic. Before our own orca research work started, the coast off northern Newfoundland and Labrador had never been scientifically surveyed for orcas. This report tells the on-going story of our research expeditions.
Throughout the 1990s the holiday leaders of Wildland Tours received occasional reports from government officials and travelers about orca sightings off southern Labrador. Passengers on the Labrador coastal supply boats seemed particularly likely to give anecdotal reports of orcas along the southern Labrador coast. A check with Memorial University researchers revealed that a dead orca had been found in the Battle Harbour area around 1995. Reports of orcas from other southern Labrador coastal communities were also relatively frequent. And despite low numbers of knowledgeable whale watchers visiting the more remote portions of southern Labrador, many travelers reported seeing orcas. Over the years orca reports have been far more common off southern Labrador, which receives very few visitors, than off St. John ‘s or Bay Bulls, where there are numerous, daily whale watching trips.
With this in mind, in September of 1997, Wildland Tours accepted an invitation to explore the restoration of Battle Harbour on the Labrador coast. Battle Harbour, which has been a fishing port since 1759, is one of Labrador ‘s oldest European settlements. It was the major centre for generations of Newfoundland fishing families until the 1960s, when it was abandoned. Many of Labrador’s coastal (European-settled) communities have been abandoned, but the amazing architecture and awesome beauty of the area have inspired Labrador enthusiasts to restore many of the town’s larger buildings. Our general manager was exploring the site to assess its suitability for future holidays and especially to look for orcas when she spotted a male and female orca accompanied by a calf. The whales passed close to the local ferry that was returning her to the airstrip. Other than this ferry trip the site-inspection didn’t allow for any time on the water looking for whales. Nevertheless, she did find three orcas!
There is no mistaking an orca sighting. The males have the largest dorsal fins in the ocean — as tall as six feet — while the females have the world’s second largest dorsal fins — typically a meter or three feet high. Two days prior to our manager’s arrival in Battle Harbour a cruise ship reported sighting a large pod of orcas. And during her visit the local hosts stated that “this variety of whale is here all the time”.
We also conducted interviews with people from southern Labrador. Many of the people in the area are of aboriginal ancestry and have a long tradition of closely watching the ocean. Some people reported that the whales with the large dorsal fins were seen daily — from late June to late September. We heard amusing stories of children in row boats attempting to cross a narrow strait between two islands but being forced back to shore by the apparently playful rushes of the orcas. We also heard how the orcas can be seen every day from some of the hills near the community and how some have occasionally put on breaching displays for the community’s citizens.
We speculated that we had found the western Atlantic’s best area for reliably encountering orcas; and during 1998 we offered a special trip to southern Labrador for the historical sights and especially to begin a preliminary attempt to document orca numbers and distribution in the area. If there were orcas frequenting the area then detailed observations would provide useful scientific insights together with one of eastern North America ‘s premier whale watching experiences. (Newfoundland currently boasts the world’s largest gathering of humpback whales. If Labrador can be proven to host a reliably sighted pod of orcas, then it would be scientifically important and could form the basis for an incredibly exciting holiday!) The orcas cannot physically maintain a year-round residency off southern Labrador since the pack ice moves along the Labrador coast every springtime and forms a solid mass hundreds of square miles in size. During the rest of the year our surveying of travelers and fishing industry professionals suggested that there do seem to be reliably sighted orcas in the southern Labrador area. They might not be “resident” however even British Columbia ‘s “resident” whales move offshore in the winter so the term resident does not necessarily mean “year-round”.
Our 1998 expedition found two separate family groups (one group of four orcas and one of five orcas) south of Battle Harbour. Poor weather or poor viewing locations prevented our attempts at scientifically useful photography. Our 1998 expedition leader, Dr. Sean Todd (now senior researcher with Allied Whale at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbour, Maine), observed that the orcas appeared to be feeding on capelin — a small 6-inch fish that is very abundant along the coast. The orcas were in the company of at least 4 other species of whale (humpback, fin, sei and white-beaked dolphins). Eating capelin represents a unique feeding behaviour for orcas, although it is not surprising given the ecology of the region. In 1999 we started a formal registry of provincial orca sightings so we could more systematically study the animals, and we sent a group of adventurous Canadian businessmen to southern Labrador by helicopter. Three orcas were seen off the Gray Islands of northern Newfoundland and a small group (at least three) was seen just south of Battle Harbour.
The year 2000 brought more orca sightings around Newfoundland and Labrador than ever before. In addition to occasional sightings around the province’s coast, we continued to receive regular reports of sightings from southern Labrador and also from a portion of northern Newfoundland in an area almost within view of the Labrador coast. A local biologist (Paul Alcock of Northland Discovery Boat Tours in St. Anthony) reported 120 orca sightings over the summer. By July 2001, Wildland Tours groups were again viewing orcas off the Labrador coast, including one large male that pursued a minke whale around Red Bay harbour for over an hour. During that same year Dr. Jon Lien reported a minke and orca cooperatively feeding on herring off the community of Nain, Labrador.
Given the strong anecdotal evidence for reliable orca viewing and the success of our past three in-house orca expeditions, we offered eastern North America ‘s first commercial orca watching holiday in mid-August 2002. That expedition searched the coastline off Labrador and northern Newfoundland encountering six species of whale together with caribou, moose, several seal species, and a black bear. Orcas were reported in the region, but we never found them. Later that year a group of 30 orcas were reported off Battle Harbour. The staff at this site had reported sighting large groups of orcas during the early fall for many years so we adjusted our timing for our next orca-oriented expedition.
Our strategy of formally documenting sightings from around the province also began to lend insights as we concluded that the Grand Banks (offshore Newfoundland) and the northern Newfoundland/southern Labrador area are the western Atlantic ’s prime places for orca sightings. Late August and early September appeared to be ideal times for near shore orca encounters off the southern Labrador coast.
In 2004 we continued working with southern Labrador residents, including the Battle Harbour Historic Trust (the people who turned the area’s restored buildings into basic accommodations), as part of our ongoing research into Newfoundland and Labrador ‘s whale biology and distribution. Our September 2004 Southern Labrador Adventure expedition went to Battle Harbour and featured two families of orcas plus over 10,000 white-sided and white-beaked dolphins. We were able to catalogue some orca dorsal fins photographically. Our September 2005 expedition followed the same itinerary and featured a group of seven orcas — all females and juveniles. We watched them closely circle and agitate a group of three humpbacks that grouped closely together to defend themselves. We were fortunate enough to record the underwater squeals of these orcas and the humpback trumpets — which were also very audible above the surface. (This can be heard at Atlantic Whales). Our September 2006 expedition featured another dramatic encounter with a family of orcas and our photographic census research allowed us to establish that we were observing the same extended family of orcas. Our 2007 expedition featured orcas preying on white beaked dolphins. Other orca observers photographed predation events on a white sided dolphin and a small minke whale. We collected two dolphin dorsal fins (apparently orcas don’t find them particularly appetizing) and passed them along to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for research purposes.
For September 2008 we will once again be travelling in the Battle Harbour and Northern Newfoundland regions in order to continue our humpback census work and also to collect more orca photographs. This year we hope to once again use our hydrophone to capture more underwater vocalizations to see how they compare with the orcas of Iceland, western Canada and Norway. Results from B.C. show that orcas following a resident lifestyle are far more vocal than the silent-hunting transient lifestyle orcas. Our Newfoundland and Labrador orcas could certainly not be considered silent but other than our 2005 recording, there is no data on their underwater communications. Thus the vocalizations of the study region orcas should provide interesting and important scientific insights.
There are no guarantees of orca sightings since, other than our expeditions, we still have no systematic, scientific data about whale residency. There is, however, strong aboriginal knowledge suggesting a high probability of orca sightings; and all but one of our preliminary surveys and previous expeditions have proven to be successful with respect to finding orcas. The worst-case scenario is that Southern Labrador Adventure participants will have a wonderful whale-filled holiday without orcas, but all the evidence suggests we will find orcas over the course of the expedition. The area is typically rich with humpbacks, and we will be working to photograph as many humpback tail flukes as possible. According to the researchers working with Dr. Sean Todd at Allied Whale in Maine, these humpbacks are the least known feeding population in the world; and scientists continue to be especially interested in our tail photographs from this area.
The southern Labrador area boasts other whales, icebergs, great walking, beautiful scenery, subarctic wildflowers, abundant black bears, eider duck colonies, varied seabirds, and a rich, historic atmosphere. This is where Peary used the eastern arctic’s most northerly wireless set to tell the world about his 1909 journey to the Pole (“the Pole is ours”). And this is where beautifully restored fishing homes and merchant warehouses at Battle Harbour offer a glimpse back into 19th century commercial life. At Battle Harbour we provide basic accommodations in restored and refurbished historical buildings together with great food. The second half of our expedition focuses on the coast of northern Newfoundland where we venture out into the areas that have provided dozens of orca sightings a year since 2000. Here we have more modern local accommodations and food in place — so we can enjoy wild, whale-filled days and comfortable nights.
We believe this trip is one of the greatest adventures available on Earth. The western and northern Newfoundland travel routes include two UNESCO world heritage sites, the northern edge of the Appalachian Mountains, and the New World ‘s only Viking site. Our southern Labrador route features the 1550 world whaling capital at Red Bay and the New World ‘s oldest burial mound. The dramatic coastal settings and the wildlife populations hold the promise of transforming our itinerary into the learning and research vacation of a lifetime. If you are interested in exploring these little-known parts of the world as part of our quest to document the whales along the east coast of North America, we invite you to review the itinerary and join the expedition.
Dave Snow has written numerous articles and special publications on seabirds, whales, and marine ecology. Wildland Tours promotes and coordinates the Newfoundland and Labrador portion of the world-wide humpback whale census. This population has been found to be the planet’s largest feeding gathering of humpbacks. The study of whale numbers provides important insights into oceanic health. In 2007, Dave co-authored the first draft of the Canadian government’s pending status report document on the orcas of Atlantic Canada for the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).

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