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Updated: Here's why the orcas spotted beach rubbing in downtown Sechelt was a rare sighting

The orcas are multi-generational family members of the Northern Resident Killer Whales, who are rarely seen south of Campbell River

While on his usual daily stroll along the beaches of Sechelt or Davis Bay, Tim Struck came across a sight he hadn’t experienced in his 20 years on the Sunshine Coast. 

A trio of orcas were closer to the shore of Trail Bay, on Sechelt’s waterfront, than Struck had ever seen them. The two smaller whales seemed to be rubbing themselves on the smooth rocks that line the beach and Struck was able to catch the moment on camera. 

“It was arguably one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. I have seen whales up close coming out of Pender Harbour out to the ocean there,” Struck said. “But this was different, because they were right on the beach. They were clearly rubbing themselves on the soft rocks on the beach… totally getting a massage.” 

These weren’t just any whales, but members of the A42 pod of Northern Resident Killer Whales making their annual winter return to the Salish Sea. The A42 pod is made up of Sonora, her five offspring and one grandchild.

Gary Sutton, a research technician with the Whales Initiative at Ocean Wise, said the population usually does not travel south of Campbell River, making this sighting all the more rare.

The Southern Resident Killer Whales - pods J, K and L - are more common around the Salish Sea, but the northern population is the only one known to engage in beach rubbing behaviour, Sutton said.

Beach rubbing, when animals swim close to shore to rub their bellies on smooth pebbles, is thought to help scrape off dead skin, strengthen family bonds and - yes - provide a massage-like feeling.

“I think it speaks to the cultural lives of these animals, that everything they’ve learned is from their mother. As a species, not even just here but globally, killer whales have been so successful, because they kind of stick to that ‘Do what your mother told you,’ and don't stray too far from that,” Sutton said. 

Researchers were able to identify the orcas based on the photos sent in, as there is an ongoing photo catalogue. The two smaller whales Struck saw beach rubbing are A114 and A119, Sonora’s youngest offspring and her grandchild. Keeping watch from farther away was A79, also known as Current. She’s easily recognizable from her large, hooked dorsal fin that’s characteristic of the Northern Residents. 

Although Sonora wasn’t spotted from Sechelt during this sighting, Sutton said she seems to be in good health based on other recent sightings – and she may even be pregnant. Using drones to take aerial photographs of the whales, researchers can measure the stores of fat around an orca’s cranial area to determine how fat and healthy they are. Recent measurements show A42 with a larger midsection.

These animals have the second longest gestation period of any mammal, at 17 months long, so if Sonora is pregnant, it may still be quite some time before a new offspring joins the pod.

The water off the beach in Trail Bay is quite deep, Struck noted, so the whales could easily swim in and out, even if it looks like they were beaching themselves. Struck was wearing a pair of shorts and stayed as long as he could until he became too cold. 

“You just don’t get to see that every day,” he told Coast Reporter. One acquaintance of Struck’s said to see whales up close is a bucket-list item.

Struck is not one for social media, and his wife Kirsten shared his videos of the orcas online for others to enjoy. 

For researchers, sharing whale sightings helps them track the population and see what habitat they’re using. Sutton said this information could then be used for conservation. Reports of sightings can also help protect the whales by sending an alert through the port authority in Vancouver to all the vessels in the area, telling them to mind their speed, reducing the risk of ship strike and disturbance. Observations can be reported on the WhaleReport app or website at report.wildwhales.org. 

As for their daily walk, Struck said he and Kirsten, who was working at the time, “walk every day and hope that we see the whales again.

“It’s a thing of beauty.”

More information about regulations and guidelines can be found at bewhalewise.org.