Record number of Bigg's killer whales spotted in the Salish Sea

More than 70 were counted Thursday off the coast of B.C. and Washington state.

It's a big week for Bigg's whales.

A record number of the transient killer whales were counted off the coast of British Columbia and Washington state Thursday.

According to the Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWAA), whale watchers counted 10 distinct groups of the animal between Campbell River and Puget Sound for a new single-day high of more than 70 whales.

"The number might sound unbelievable, but it's no April Fools' joke," said PWWA executive director Erin Gless in a statement announcing the sightings.

Mark Malleson, researcher for the Center for Whale Research and longtime guide for Prince of Whales in Victoria, BC, confirmed the number as a new Salish Sea record.

According to Malleson, there have been days in the past decade where 50, maybe 60, Bigg's were spotted, but he said in a statement that Thursday's tally was "astounding."

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Biggs whales/Submitted via CBC

A record-breaking number of Bigg's killer whales were counted off the South Coast Thursday. The two whales photographed here are brothers known as T101A 'Rush' and T101B 'Lagoon,' according to the Pacific Whale Watch Association. (Hysazu Photography/Ellie Sawyer/Maya’s Legacy/Pacific Whale Watch Association)

The largest group spotted, said PWAA, was near the northern San Juan Islands and had 18 whales.

Sam Murphy of Island Adventures Whale Watching in Anacortes, Wash., was lucky enough to witness it and said in a statement that, at first, four whales appeared and then, suddenly, "out of nowhere, 14 more materialized."

"It was magical," said Murphy.

Bigg's killer whales are the mammal-eating cousin to the endangered southern resident killer whales, which feed on waning salmon stocks.

Bigg's whale/Submitted via CBC

One of the whales spotted is known as T63 or 'Chainsaw' to researchers because of his jagged dorsal fin. Chainsaw was born in 1978 and was seen Thursday with his mom near the U.S.-Canada border. (Val Shore/Eagle Wing Tours/ Pacific Whale Watch Association)

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Unlike their struggling relatives, Bigg's whales hunt marine mammals and are thriving because of an abundance of seals and sea lions in the region, according to researchers.

Gless said the total count was 72 and told CBC this time of year is known as the "spring surge" for Bigg's sightings because the Salish Sea is like a seal snack buffet right now.

"They have moved in. The dinner bell has been rung. Word is getting around this is the hot new restaurant in town," said Gless.

The abundance of whales in the water right now, she said, is important for recreational boaters to keep in mind when heading out to play.

"These whales are here so when you are out on the water be mindful," said Gless.

She said it is critical to slow your speed and be vigilant whenever you see a whale watching vessel as there are quite likely whales in the area.

The story was originally published by CBC News on April 1, 2022. It contains files from Jessica Cheung.