Turning the Tide: The Killer Whale Rubbing Beach

Fri, 10/04/2019 - 5:15am

Arriving for a visit to Malcolm Island in British Columbia, I felt a sense of tranquility and nervousness wash over me. I prepared for days of studying killer whales with Troy Bright through an art-based residency.

My first introduction to Troy Bright, the lead researcher on the northern resident killer whales at Bere Point, was a quick but warm welcome to the British Columbian coast. He had to return to his research camp after discovering killer whales were approaching the area. Hoping to catch the first glance of killer whales, myself and a fellow artist-in-residence trailed behind, quickly becoming engulfed in the wild and unknown coastal environment.

Bright has been studying the rubbing behavior and social activities of northern resident killer whales for the past 23 years. As part of an on-going marine mammal research study, Bright collects information on their movements and behaviors through years of photo-identifications and hydrophone recordings. His selfless dedication and patience towards this unique species became visible as I leafed through his photo-identification catalogues and data logs, spotting jotted notes and thoughts in the pages. Starting his research each year in July, Bright lives at Bere Point beach for three months, waiting day through night for the northern residents. Above the research tent, the crackle of Bright’s radio breaks through the silence, as whale watching captains convey messages of orca sightings.

Off the west coast of Canada, there are three ecotypes of killer whales: residents, Bigg’s (transients) and offshores. These three ecotypes live separate lives and do not mix, except for existing in the same waters. The resident killer whales are broken into two groups: the northern residents and the southern residents.

The families of killer whales I observed were the northern residents, who migrate in the coastal waters off British Columbia in the Queen Charlotte and Johnstone Straits. Once exploited by live capture fisheries in 1964 for aquariums, the resident killer whales were exposed by humans for entertainment purposes, but captures eventually ended in 1976; a total of 50 individuals were removed from the northern and southern populations.

Other residents were caught and released, increasing mortality and unknown population numbers. As of 2019, there are over 300 northern resident killer whales split amongst the clans: A, G and R. The northern residents have shown positive population growth since 1974, with a recent calf spotting in early September of this year.

Bright’s research location is known as a killer whale rubbing beach, one of  a few in British Columbia, and rarely witnessed in the world. The northern resident killer whales are the only known ecotype from this mix of killer whales to rub on British Columbia beaches. It is believed these rubbing sessions are a cultural rite of passage, passed on to the next generations in the northern residents.

The first time I witnessed the rubbing activity was on Sunday Aug. 4, when over 30 of the northern residents arrived from the north, charging through familiar waters towards the rubbing beach. Within the group, family members from the A clan were spotted, along with a female and her calf.

Sitting quietly on the beach, I began to record the residents rubbing their skin along the rocks. Swimming parallel to the shore, the residents began diving and exhaling in a rhythmic fashion over the rocks. The rubbing session was short, as they swam in a new direction away from the beach.

The northern resident killer whales share a complex family structure, built of matrilineal lineages. The females in the families are the leaders, and that trait is passed on through generations. These groups of killer whales will stay with each other for life, forming relationships and social structures more complex than those of humans.

During the last days of the residency, the northern residents arrived in bountiful numbers, as if a blessing from above. We watched the whales swim farther into the open ocean, leaving us with the sound of the tide rolling against the rubbing pebbles.

Writer Rosemary Connelli participated in the Sointula Art Shed residency from July 31 through Aug. 5. Sointula Art Shed, a regularly programmed art residency on British Columbia, is led by locals Kerri Reid and Tyler Brett. Visual artists themselves, they have opened the residency since 2013 to new and familiar artists in their small artist shed, right next door to their small cottage. Upon meeting Kerri and Tyler, their charming personalities shared a mutual connection with the cottage's endearing appearance: a bright yellow home exuberating warmth and tranquility. Having known Bright for years, Kerri and Tyler launched a research artist residency in collaboration with Bright's studies, for artists to study the killer whales and produce artwork. Artists can have the chance to learn of the killer whales' unique culture in a scientific manner, and turn these encounters into a visually communicative experience with the whales through art mediums.