COVER STORY: North Shore scientist leads research on killer whales

Outlook cover, Dec. 6. - Vancouver Aquarium photo
Outlook cover, Dec. 6.
— image credit: Vancouver Aquarium photo

Vancouver Aquarium’s Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program helps fund longterm studies on the majestic marine mammal.


Perhaps we are so drawn to killer whales because, on some level, we can relate.

Similar to humans, killer whales learn habits and customs from their parents, live in tight-knit families and have only one baby at time.

And, like us, they are highly social, forming close bonds with their pod members. In fact, killer whales live side-by-side with their mothers their entire lives — a cringe-worthy thought for many human moms.

Members of a pod “talk” to each other using a distinct dialect that they pass down from generation to generation. And if female killer whales are lucky, just like women, they can live to the ripe old age of 90.

From a distance, however, it’s difficult to believe the six-tonne, black-and-white mammals have anything in common with humans.

Just 30 years ago, much about the way killer whales live was still a mystery. But all this changed when researchers like the North Shore’s Lance Barrett-Lennard, a marine mammal scientist at the Vancouver Aquarium, started to investigate.

“Killer whales are extremely intelligent. They have gigantic brains and a phenomenal memory,” he tells The Outlook, sitting in his office at the aquarium.

“They store memories about each other and can recognize people very quickly.

“If they don’t like a trainer, for instance, it’s hopeless because they have such strong opinions.”

Much of Barrett-Lennard’s research focuses on different kinds of killer whales living in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of B.C.

Resident killer whales, which live close to the shore and eat primarily fish, are the most commonly spotted. Transient whales, on the other hand, travel in small groups, roaming the coast in search of seals, sea lions and otters.

“At this point, what we know keeps the two distinct is their complex cultural system. They pass on traditions,” says Barrett-Lennard, who has been studying the mammals since the 1980s and spends part of each year at sea in a small boat learning more about them.

He focused on the genetics of killer whales in the 1980s for his master’s degree from UBC.

“I was interested in how they all stay with their mom for their whole lives. Siblings stay with their mom, grandkids too. There are sometimes even a couple great-grandkids,” he says, sitting in front of the massive skull of Skaha, a killer whale that lived at the aquarium during the late ‘80s.

Based on his research, he found offspring only leave their moms briefly to mate, then quickly swim back to their pods.

But Barrett-Lennard’s research isn’t black and white.

His conclusion that “transient” and “resident” killer whales lead distinct lives was questioned last month when their endangered species status was challenged by a group of farmers in California.

Regulations to protect salmon the whales eat, say the farmers, are making it difficult to expand their agricultural businesses. They are calling for southern resident killer whales to be delisted based on the claim that these whales are the same as others around the world.

But Barrett-Lennard’s research leads in a much different direction.

“There is very strong evidence resident and transient killer whales are well-defined and genetically different,” he says. “This flies in the face of 40 years of research.”

At the farmers’ request, a national association is conducting an nine-month examination on whether to remove protections for the whales.


Barrett-Lennard and his small team have painstakingly photographed nearly every killer whale off the West Coast. Because the whales usually only have one offspring every five years, it’s relatively easy to keep tabs on specific whales.

“They’re thought of as high-level predators, but their capacity to recover is limited because of their slow reproduction rate,” Barrett-Lennard says.

Mother whales are pregnant for about 17 months and don’t start to wean their babies until they’re more than a year old.

The data collected by Barrett-Lennard is used for the Vancouver Aquarium’s Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program, where specific whales off the coast of B.C. can be chosen based on where they live.

Right now, Misty, Scarlett, Kwatsi and Notch, among a long list of others, are up for adoption.

Adopting a killer whale makes a perfect Christmas present for someone who has everything, says Meghan McKillop, marine mammal researcher at the aquarium.

If someone has an eight-year-old grandchild, for instance, they could adopt Hope, an eight-year-old killer whale who lives with his close family in Northern B.C. Adoptions are renewable every year, so Hope could grow up with their grandkid.

Each adoption certificate comes with a photo, biography and an annual update.

“People get very attached to their whales. I know some who have cried when their whales died,” says McKillop.

Even though the Vancouver Aquarium doesn’t keep killer whales anymore, studying them in the wild is still important to Barrett-Lennard. The money from the adoption program goes directly back into his research.

“Research on [killer whales] requires longterm studies. This [program] gives us a consistent source of money to rely on,” he says.

As it turns out, Barrett-Lennard has learned, killer whales are different than humans in the way they learn. Unlike humans, who are extremely adaptable to change, killer whales are more cautious.

“They don’t like to experiment with new things very much. They learn by example and interaction,” says Barrett-Lennard.

If a captive killer whale stops a routine it’s not because he forgets, but because he’s bored and wants to the show to change.

Understanding the complex relationship between Transient and Resident killer whales has inspired Barrett-Lennard to dedicate his career to their study.

“They share the same space and encounter each other, but they’re different,” he says. “We think they maintain dietary separation to avoid conflict.”

As it turns out, much of what divides killer whales is the same as what separates humans. It’s all about culture.

For the best chance to spot a pod of killer whales off the North Shore, head to Lions Bay or further up Howe Sound.
For more information about the Vancouver Aquarium’s adoption program, visit




















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