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Playful solo orca whale delights observers in Howe Sound

This unusual ‘lone male’ Biggs orca has an independent streak

A young orca whale with a notable independent streak put on a show for delighted observers in the southern entrance to Howe Sound on Sunday.

The whale, officially known as T065A5, but nicknamed "Indy," spent close to an hour in waters between West Vancouver and Bowen Island “having the best time ever” said Tobin Sparling, a UBC biology graduate, citizen scientist and science educator for a local whale watching tour company.

“He was very entertaining, jumping all over the place,” said Sparling. “Indy tends to do it a lot.”

Often orcas will exhibit such behaviour after hunting, said Sparling. But with this whale, jumping seems to be part of his general playful behaviour, he said.

Indy, who used to be known as Elsie until scientists realized he was a male, has shown a distinctly independent nature compared to other whales, said Sparling.

“He is one of the few orcas that does not typically travel with a pod. He’s what we call a lone male, said Sparling.

Usually, lone male orcas are adults. And most orcas follow their mothers their whole lives, he added.

For reasons observers don’t understand, though “Indy is usually not with his family,” said Sparling.

The whale – who is eight or nine years old – first started on his solo adventures away from the pod last year, he added.

Like most coastal orca whales, Indy is identified by scientists and other observers through a combination of dorsal fin size and shape and the makeup of the saddle patch behind the dorsal fin that is unique to each individual.

“So once you spend enough time around the whales, you can start to recognize them, just like you can recognize different people’s faces, to notice the differences very quickly,” said Sparling.

Photos of each orca with identifying characteristics have all been catalogued, Sparling added.

In Indy’s case, there’s a notch in his dorsal fin that makes him “pretty recognizable”, especially in combination with the whale’s solo sojourns, said Sparling.

Indy still has a lot of growing to do before he reaches full maturity, Sparling added. Orca males don’t stop growing until they are around 16 to 20 years old, he said. Most orca males hit a growth spurt around 15, with the dorsal fin on adult males being disproportionately bigger than that of the adult females.

Indy is a Bigg’s orca whale – also known as a transient orca whale – which are the whales most often spotted around the south coast.

Indy is the fifth calf of his mother, a whale dubbed TO65A by scientists, said Sparling.

Indy is one of the most playful whales around the South Coast, he said, but that sometimes also gets him in trouble. Just a few days before Indy put on a show in Howe Sound, he got tangled in a crab trap in the waters of Saratoga Passage off Washington State. Authorities had to come and untangle the whale to free him.

Later, Sunday when Indy was spotted locally, he met up with his family pod and was seen swimming with them, said Sparling. He went off on further solo adventures later.