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It’s not every day that a group of killer whales swim past your office window, especially when the view includes the developed northern shore of Vancouver’s harbour. But that is precisely what happened on Friday, June 14 when a group of seven killer whales ventured into the Burrard Inlet and swam past the seawall in front of the Vancouver Aquarium.

The Aquarium’s B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network had been notified of the whale sighting earlier in the day by Wild Whales Vancouver, one of the many whale watching companies that participate in our citizen science monitoring project, when the whales were still outside of English Bay. A few hours later, the whales were reported again – this time as they headed under the Lion’s Gate Bridge, which connects downtown Vancouver to North Vancouver.

Fortunately, our research vessel, the Skana, had yet to make its summer trip north to British Columbia’s central coast and was still docked in Coal Harbour. The cetacean research team hopped aboard with its head marine mammal scientist, Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, and made a quick trip around the corner to find the whales right in the middle of the sea bus lane!

This reconnaissance behavior is known as a spy hop. Photo credit: Vancouver Aquarium.

This reconnaissance behaviour is known as a spy hop. Photo credit: Vancouver Aquarium.

Sightings of cetaceans such as whales within the city are rare, but generate a huge amount of excitement, as was evident by the seawall packed with thrilled park visitors and Aquarium staff. However, what many Vancouverites may not realize is how regularly killer whales are sighted quite nearby. They are often spotted within the waters of Howe Sound and the Strait of Georgia, just outside of city limits.

The whales were identified as two families of Bigg’s (transient) killer whales. The first family, scientifically known as the T86As, is made up of a 25-year-old female (T86A) and her two offspring, including a two-year-old calf. The second family was the T101s – a family of four headed by female T101 (who is at least 40 years old) and her three sons. Two of her boys (T102 and T101A) are mature males with huge dorsal fins that may grow to nearly 1.8 metres (6’ feet) tall!

Bigg’s killer whales prey on marine mammals, and their visit to the city was likely a scouting trip for harbour seals (their main prey). Sightings of Bigg’s whales in the area have increased considerably in the past few years, as more whales have rediscovered the abundant seal population in the Salish Sea, making it a prime hunting ground.

The whales eventually made their way out of the Inlet, stopping shortly off West Vancouver’s shoreline to mill about before heading in the direction of Howe Sound. Their visit is a reminder that the waters around our cities are home to a huge diversity of marine life.

Remember – you can help us learn more about cetaceans in B.C. by reporting your whale, dolphin or porpoise sighting to Vancouver Aquarium’s B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network. You can also support our important killer whale research and conservation efforts directly through the Aquarium’s Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program.

This video captures footage of the sighted whales, as well as commentary from Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard:

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