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Moving Camp With Orca by Our Side

By Janie Wray, Hermann Meuter, 7th July 2013

We had an extended winter along the north shores of British Columbia, on Gil Island. So much so that our shelter at Ulric Point to observe killer whale activity was completely destroyed during hurricane force winds. You can imagine our surprise to arrive and see nothing but a few posts that once supported this shelter. We had been thinking of moving the cabin to the Wall Islets on Rennison Island and it appears the weather had made this decision for us sooner rather than later. This last week we have been busy getting supplies, cutting lumber and finding new posts to build a new cabin. It is slow going on this remote island, especially as southeast gales continue to blow, but we are hopeful it will be complete with in a week’s time.
While building yesterday we were all in for a delightful surprise as 2 male orca fins sliced the water just meters from the camp. They were the A36 boys and to follow is their story.

Killer whale matrilines are named after the oldest female of the family, for this family that would be A36. If she had given birth to a female her dialect would have been passed on to her daughters and their offspring. Since A36 only had sons this would not be the case and her passing would be the end of dialect that has been vocalized for decades if not centuries. She did however have 3 remarkable sons. We have watched these boys mature from playful calves to full grown males, with dorsal fins as high as 6 feet. They would tower over their mother, as her dorsal is only 3 feet high. Yet there has never been any doubt that she was the boss of this small family. Sadly, we all lost this majestic matriarch in 1999 when she passed away at the age of 50. We were curious if the bond between the bothers would continue with out her presence. To our delight with each encounter in the years to follow they were together, either spread out foraging on salmon or traveling in tight resting line – side by side.
There was another family within this clan who also had an older matriarch, A12, but unlike A36 she gave birth to a female, A34. Over time A12 became a great, great grandmother as A34 had offspring, who had offspring of their own. By now A12 was spending more and more time with her sons and less with daughter. It is quite common for a mother to outlive her sons and this is exactly what happened. We were quite concerned when only one son was left. The following year he had also passed away. By this time A12 was seldom seen with her daughter who was now forming her own matriline. We were not sure what A12 would do or how she would survive without her sons.
It was soon after wards we witnessed a form of behavior never before documented with resident orca, or any other species. This matriarch A12, now 72 years old, was seen traveling with the A36 boys that had lost their own mother years ago.
Time passed, and with each sighting there she was with these large males. Had this been our first encounter with this group we would have assumed they were a family. We believe there is so much we can learn from orca in regards to social bonds and this example reflects on the strength of the maternal relationship between mothers and sons, even if they have adopted each other.

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