Happy Orca Awareness Month!
Are you aware of the different Orca ecotypes along the Pacific Northwest? Are you aware that one of those ecotypes was called “Transient” even though all Orcas in the Pacific Northwest transit through the area? Are you aware that “Transients” are now called “Biggs” after the researcher who first discovered that not all Orcas are the same type of Orca? Are you aware of how confusing this all is???
We definitely are and that’s why this month we’re here to clarify one piece of the complicated Biggs naming puzzle. Specifically – how they get their nicknames!
For a very very very long time individual Biggs Orcas on the B.C. coast had only scientific identification numbers by which we could record their stories. This worked pretty well when researchers were first studying the animals – each Orca’s ID started with T (for Transient) and then was followed by a number (up to three digits), ex. T046. Though the ID numbers lacked “personality” they were doing the job until the Ts researchers were studying started to become grandparents…
You see, the naming convention meant that any of T046’s offspring would be ID’d as T046A, T046B, and so on. Clunky definitely but still functional. Not so much when THOSE offspring started having calves of their own because at that point numbers come back into play again so T046A’s offspring would be named T046A1, T046A2, and so on. Then the next generation after that gets letters again and the generation after that gets numbers… This is how we ended up with one of the most famous Orcas to swim along our coast in years being named T046B1B!
Don’t know who that is? Don’t worry. That’s a pretty normal reaction when faced with a gibberish combination of letters and numbers. But what about when we say the name “Tl’uk”? You may not feel totally sure how to pronounce it but chances are a lot higher that you recognize the name of the rare white (and grey) Orca calf that took the world by storm last year.
So how did this whale go from T046B1B to “Tl’uk”? How do any of BC’s Ts get their nicknames? Well, turns out there’s a Facebook group for that! Moderated by friend-of-the-site Ashley, the Biggs Facebook naming group brings together naturalists, researchers, and other notable whale enthusiasts in the community to collaborate and nickname the Ts that frequent our waters. The process starts by selecting an Orca, then the group suggests a variety of names for that individual (often with significance to their appearance, other nicknames in the family, or geographical significance), then a poll is set up with the top name suggestions and members vote for their favourite and that’s it. It’s very democratic and very successful.
It’s also accessible to people who aren’t part of the group. Though the group itself has restricted access, anyone with a name suggestion can offer it to a group member to submit for consideration which is how the name “Tl’uk” came up as an option to vote on. A passenger on a whale watch vessel suggested the name, which is a Coast Salish word meaning moon, to their naturalist who submitted it to the group where it eventually was chosen as T046B1B’s nickname! Thanks team!