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Orcas enjoy the rubbing beach © OrcaLab
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The secrets of orca beach life

Rubbing on smooth pebbles is a generations-old cultural tradition for a particular group of orcas off the coast of British Columbia, Canada.  Cameras allow our partners at OrcaLab to take you right into the orcas' fascinating, hidden world ...

Orcas are deeply cultural beings: the ultimate team players, it’s difficult not to admire their devotion to one another throughout their extraordinary lives. Orca culture is complex. It drives and shapes the way different communities live, determining what they eat, how they hunt, how they play, the language they speak and the social traditions they enjoy.

Young orcas learn from their elders, especially their mothers, and traditional, cultural ways of doing things are passed down from one generation to the next.

Fife, Bend, Holly and Simoom belong to the Northern Resident orca community of British Columbia. They are fish eaters, preferring juicy Chinook salmon. Did you know that you can adopt them through our adopt an orca programme?

Orcas travelling
Bend and her family

Adopt an orca and get to know a fascinating individual

These orcas live in close-knit family pods and stay with their mothers and siblings for life. Families hunt together and individuals share their catches so no one goes hungry.

During the summer, salmon gather in Johnstone Strait as they return to spawn in the coastal rivers they were born in. Orcas follow their prey and also gather here – noisy, spirited mayhem ensues as families reunite and celebrate enduring friendships. Males and females of all ages socialise, new babies are introduced, breeding occurs and families enjoy visits to their sacred rubbing beaches here.

Rubbing beach
A perfect orca rubbing beach

Although they are not the only orca community in these waters, beach rubbing is a cultural tradition practised only by Northern Resident orca families. They favour a handful of locations for their rubbing rituals and these have persisted for multiple generations. The key ingredients are plenty of smooth pebbles and sandy patches in the shallows offering massage potential.

Families beach rub for a few minutes or for more than an hour, sometimes multiple times a  day. A pod may speed excitedly towards a rubbing beach or approach calmly and form a pre-rub circle, swimming counter-clockwise.

Orcas rubbing
Orcas rubbing together. They rub their bellies, backs and fins on the cool pebbles

Each whale releases giant bubbles from their blowhole, and as they empty their lungs they sink to the seabed and start rubbing. They roll around and glide along the bottom, sometimes upside down, massaging their bodies and fins on the cool pebbles – bliss!

Orca rubbing
An orca releasing giant air bubbles and sinking to the seabed

On the face of it, entering shallow water could be a risky activity for such large marine mammals, but they are so in tune with their environment and one another that their regular rubbing beach forays always pass without incident.

Beach rubbing seems to be a wholly enjoyable, tactile pastime. It’s certainly an important cultural ritual and probably serves to fortify their bonds and commitment to one another.

They are vocal when rubbing and their calls and squeals have a musical quality. Everyone takes turns rubbing and when it is all over, they swim away together, seemingly in a zen-like mood.

Orcas
The orcas swim away together – until next time

I wanted to say a big thank you to our friends at Curve Games who, together with our amazing supporters and the generous Humble Bundle community, together raised £6,000 for a new land-based camera at a rubbing beach near to OrcaLab. The camera was successfully installed in June last year and over the summer a total of 49 rubs occurred with the camera recording some fascinating orca behaviour. Our colleagues at OrcaLab hope that the footage gathered by this camera will help to build a case to extend the nearby ecological reserve and provide further protection for the orcas.

The more we learn about this group of orcas, and all orcas, the more in awe we become. They are intelligent, cultural, social, and emotionally complex beings who need our protection. They face all kinds of threats from hunting and captivity to climate change, but you can help them by adopting a Northern Resident orca. You'll get to know an individual whale, learn all about their incredible life and help to keep them safe.

Want to know more?

Adopt an orca for yourself or as a gift.

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