Killer Whales near Arctic Bowhead Whale Sanctuary

Ten  years ago in late August I was leading an Arctic cruise of lucky Canadians, including a group of WWF members and donors, along the spectacular north Baffin Island coastline, and across to Greenland’s Disko Bay (a world heritage site).   The well-known Canadian folk musician Ian Tamblyn was playing an evening concert in the ship’s main theatre, and of course as a marine ecologist I was up on the bridge, wildlife spotting.  Seconds after seeing a pod of 6 or so Killer Whales near the ship, everyone was on-deck – Ian later told me that it was the only time absolutely everyone had walked out of one of his concerts!!

Killer whale in the Canadian Arctic (C) Tim Stewart
Killer whale in the Canadian Arctic © Tim Stewart

But this just shows how important whales are to us humans – the chance to see them close up, doing their natural thing, and in wild and beautiful natural landscapes and seascapes.  Everyone got great close-up views of these whales that late summer’s evening, and we assumed that would be the last we saw of the pod.
Well,  its entirely possible that some of those whales are in the pod of 14-20 that we’ve been able to follow this past few weeks, since 5 were tagged in Milne Inlet, just west of the North Baffin community of Pond Inlet!  Wild killer whales are recorded to live up to at least  80 years in the case of females, or 40-50 for males.  Friday’s location, close to Scott Inlet, just north of the community of Clyde River, is almost exactly where I saw those whales a decade ago that fine musical evening.  Could easily be the same animals, with a few more in their highly social tightknit group.
Arctic Killer Whale tracker, September 20, 2013
Arctic Killer Whale tracker, September 20, 2013

Interestingly, the whales seem to have been moving between areas of relatively high marine productivity – possibly areas where in past years they have been successful in finding energy-rich food (seals, and other whales, and maybe some fish too).  And so it is these areas of rather high marine productivity, at least on average, that are the most important for us to give strong protection to, in the face of rapid climate change and increasing industrial activities.  This network of important marine areas, both important now and likely to be so in the future, is a major focus for WWF and others interested in truly safeguarding these places and values, and managing risks as best we can.
One such important area, just 120 km southeast of Clyde River, and probably only a two day swim for the Killer Whale pod if they carry on at the current rate, is the world’s first Bowhead Whale Sanctuary – Ninginganiq (formerly called Isabella Bay by the European whalers a few hundred years ago).  It is now a National Wildlife Area, and thought to support a few hundred mature bowhead whales each summer, as they feed on large blooms of copepod crustaceans there, putting on fat reserves for the rest of the year.  That same cruise 10 years ago we were fortunate enough to spend an afternoon offshore from this marvelous spot.
Bowhead whales at Ninginganiq (C) Tim Stewart)
Bowhead whales at Ninginganiq © Tim Stewart

Bowhead whales are one of the prey items for larger groups of Killer Whales, and with no ice in this area (but often plenty food for the bowheads), it is entirely possible that the Killer Whale pod will soon be encountering the bowheads in and near the whale sanctuary.  One bowhead kill (a mature bowhead is often 14-18m long – females larger than males) would  provide a huge amount of energy for the Killer Whale pod, as they continue to head south.
WWF has worked for over 30 years with the Inuit community of  Clyde River and with field scientists to document and understand  the bowhead story and use of Ninginganiq.  With these partners, WWF encouraged governments to finally protect this special place, as a vital feeding area for these magnificent slow, giant whales.  Clearly the impressive long-distance seasonal movements of these killer whales is enabled by being able to feed on high-energy food in these key marine habitats.
Stay tuned for more updates as the Killer Whales continue their journey.