Bigg’s Killer Whales of the Salish Sea

Bigg’s Killer Whales of the Salish Sea

There are two main types of Killer whales that frequent the Salish Sea. Bigg’s killer whales (also known as Transients), and Southern Resident killer whales. Today we’ll introduce you to Bigg’s killer whales! Referred to as “transients” by marine researcher Dr. Michael Bigg, due to their unpredictable and seemingly nomadic travels,  the term “transient” no longer accurately describes their behavior today. With increased sightings over the years, we now also refer to them as “Bigg’s” in honor of the first researcher who began photo identification which helped determine the different ecotypes.

So how often do Bigg’s visit the Salish Sea? We have Bigg’s somewhere in the Salish Sea nearly every day of the year! The Orca Behavior Institute recently shared their research sightings from last year showing that Bigg’s were sighted 344/365 days in 2023! This doesn’t necessarily guarantee that we will see them on our tours, as the Salish Sea is about 270 miles long and nearly 7,000 square miles. However, Biggs can travel up to 100 miles a day and it is not uncommon for them to make their way from north to south in a span of 3 days or so. 

Prey Availability 

What brings them here besides the beautiful mountain ranges and strong coffee? The food! Bigg’s Killer whales feed on marine mammals such as harbor seals, sea lions, porpoises, dolphins and even other whales. There is an abundance of prey for them here in the Salish Sea which has given us more opportunities to observe the behaviors of these once illusive cetaceans. One of these behaviors is prey sharing among members of the pod. They forage and hunt together which sometimes can lead to an explosive chase at the surface or all the action might happen just below the service. Prey sharing happens most often below the surface as they glide through the water column taking turns passing pieces of their catch to one another. 

Family Structure 

Who are the members of their pod? In general, Bigg’s killer whales travel as a matriline with the matriarch leading her offspring and tend to travel in groups anywhere from 2-7. New matrilines are formed when mature females split off from their mother, taking their own offspring with them. Not all Bigg’s travel with their family, there are a few individuals who are known for traveling with other groups or all on their own. The males are typically the individuals who choose to wander alone or maybe with another male who is related to them. They have been observed having “boys day outs” playing with crab pots outside of marinas and seeing what other mischief they can get into. There are also special gatherings that happen from time to time where 15-20 whales will gather with their suspected relatives and frolic together, slapping the surface with their tales or full body breaching over and over. These gatherings are referred to as “T-Parties” and researchers have a few theories as to what brings them together for these ceremonial gatherings. They could be mating, a birth could bring them all together in what looks like celebrating, or there could be a death which can sometimes look like a celebration as well. 



There are still so many unanswered questions about Bigg’s and we probably won’t ever really know why they do what they do and that’s what makes them such mystical and intelligent creatures. One thing is for sure, we will never get tired of sharing the water with them! Come experience the magic of the Salish Sea for yourself by booking a trip to see whales and wildlife with us this season!