Orcas of the Canadian Arctic

Location or Study Area: Eastern Canadian Arctic
Submitted by:
Natalie Reinhart


Killer whales (Orcinus orca) are seasonal visitors to the eastern Canadian Arctic (ECA), where they have been observed to prey on marine mammals. Their occurrence and residence time in regions of the ECA (e.g. Hudson Bay) may be increasing as a result of decreases in sea ice. Recent sightings of killer whales in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut constitute the furthest westward report. As apex predators, it is predicted that killer whales influence their marine mammal prey populations and the entire ECA marine ecosystem; however, with the limited knowledge currently held about these predators, it is difficult to determine their impact. Currently, only a minimum population estimate exists, plus whether there are specific groups, the group sizes and compositions, the seasonal distribution within and outside of the ECA, and the relatedness of ECA killer whales to other killer whales all remain unknown.

Project Description

The overall project objective is to learn more about the ecology and biology of ECA killer whales to improve our understanding of how marine mammal prey populations and the entire ECA ecosystem may be affected by their predation. With the use of photos for individual identification, satellite telemetry, an ongoing sightings database, and tissue biopsies for chemical and genetic analyses we hope to elucidate:

·         An ECA killer whale population estimate.

·         Specific groups of killer whales, their numbers and compositions.

·         Killer whale distribution within and outside of the ECA.

·         Extent of temporal and spatial overlap between ECA killer whales and other North Atlantic groups.

·         Extent of prey specialization towards (1) marine mammals or fish, and (2) specific marine mammal species.

·         Prey behaviour in response to killer whales.

·         Amount of prey necessary to meet ECA killer whale energetic requirements.

·         ECA killer whale relatedness to other killer whale populations.


A final objective is to build the capacity of Inuit community-based-monitoring of ECA killer whales. Enabling Inuit to gather data (e.g. tissue biopsies, photographs) carries dual benefits of community empowerment and potential for increased data collection. This initiative will be important for continued killer whale research in the ECA.


Ferguson SH, Kingsley MCS, Higdon JW (2012) Killer whale (Orcinus orca) predation in a multi-prey system. Population Ecology 54(1): 31-41.

Higdon JW, Ferguson SH (2009) Loss of Arctic sea ice causing punctuated change in sightings of killer whales (Orcinus orca) over the pasty century. Ecological Applications 19(5):1365-1375. 

Higdon JW, Hauser DDW, Ferguson SH (2012) Killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the Canadian Arctic: distribution, prey items, group sizes and seasonality. Marine Mammal Science 28(2):E93-E109.

Matthews CJD, Ferguson SH (2013) Spatial segregation and similar trophic-level diet among eastern Canadian Arctic/north-west Atlantic killer whales inferred from bulk and compound specific isotope analysis. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. 

Matthews CJD, Luque SP, Petersen SD, Andrews RD, Ferguson SH (2011) Satellite tracking of a killer whale (Orcinus orca) in the eastern Canadian Arctic documents ice avoidance and rapid, long-distance movement into the North Atlantic. Polar Biology 34:1091-1096.

Young BG, Higdon JW, Ferguson SH (2011) Killer whale (Orcinus orca) photo-identification in the eastern Canadian Arctic. Polar Research 30:7203-7209.


Principal Investigators (CEOS): Dr. Steven H Ferguson

UM Participants: Natalie R Reinhart, Cory JD Matthews 

Others:  Dr. Jeff W Higdon, Dr. Stephen D Petersen

Funding/Other Support

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (Emerging Fisheries), Nunavut Wildlife Research Trust Fund, Nunavut General Monitoring Program, Ocean Tracking Network, University of Manitoba, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and ArcticNet Centre of Excellence.


For more information contact:

Map of the eastern Canadian Arctic.


Photographic recapture of the same killer whale encounted in (left) 2010 in Admiralty Inlet (near Arctic Bay, Nunavut) and recaptured in (right) 2013 in Milne Inlet (near Pond Inlet, Nunavut). Credit: Gretchen Freund.


Satellite transmitter deployment via crossbow by C. Matthews in Milne Inlet (near Pond Inlet, Nunavut). Credit: Gretchen Freund.


Satellite transmitter successfully attached to the dorsal fin of a killer whale in Milne Inlet (near Pond Inlet, Nunavut). Credit: Gretchen Freund.