After humans, killer whales are the most socially and ecologically complex species on the planet. They pass on cultural traditions down generations, just like us. ADOPT a whale and help us learn more - including how best to protect them.

Sounds Produced by BC Killer Whales


The Sounds of Resident Killer Whales

Resident killer whales are very vocal. They echolocate frequently and exchange calls and whistles to maintain contact with each other while traveling and foraging. 

Resident pods have distinct dialects consisting of a set of 7 to 17 distinct stereotyped calls.  Pods with dialects that have a few calls in common are considered to belong to the same clan.  By the same token, pods with no calls in common belong to different clans.  By this criterion, the northern resident killer whale community has three clans (referred to as A, G and R) and the southern resident community has a single clan (referred to as J).   With a little practice, anyone listening to the calls of resident killer whales from British Columbia or northern Washington  can quickly learn to acoustically identify the clan they are hearing.  A number of experienced researchers can identify pods, and a few, including John Ford, Helena Symonds and Volker Deecke, can even distinguish different matrilines. 


Resident Killer Whale Vocalizations

  A Clan


  G Clan


  R Clan


  J Clan

Photo: John Ford 


Transient Killer Whales Talk (Only) WithTheir Mouths Full

Transient killer whales tend to produce very few vocalizations of any kind while travelling and foraging, and can often pass by a hydrophone without being detected. Transients are stealth hunters because their prey (i.e. porpoises, sea lions and seals) have excellent hearing and would flee if they heard transients. However, when transients are attacking and consuming prey, they become quite vocal, and can be easily identified by their unique calls.

Transients have a very fluid social structure, which may explain their lack of group-specific dialects, as heard in resident killer whales. Instead of a wide variety of dialects, most transient calls belong to the same repertoire of 4 to 6 distinct call types. It should be mentioned, however, that there is some variation between the call repertoires of B.C., Alaskan and Californian transients. All transient whales along the Pacific Northwest coast appear to share the same dialect.

  Transient vocalizations


Offshore Killer Whales—What are They Saying?

Little is known about the vocal patterns of offshore killer whales; however, their calls are different from those of either resident or transient killer whales. Whether all offshore killer whales produce the same calls, as in the case of the transients, or if they have distinct dialects like the residents, remains to be discovered. Like residents, they are vocally very active, which suggests that they rarely if ever hunt marine mammals. 

  Offshore vocalizations