Seeing killer whales (orcas) in the wild is an incredible experience in itself, particularly northern resident orcas which are listed as threatened on Canada’s species at risk list. But watching as they happily rub their bellies on smooth stones along the shores is a truly spectacular wildlife encounter. While this unique behavior has been witnessed and recorded by numerous travelers and researchers in British Columbia, scientists still don’t know exactly why they do it.
One of the main reasons they’ve yet to come to a conclusion is because it appears to be unique to resident northern populations of orcas, so there hasn’t been a lot of studies conducted. Some believe that it’s a social, rather than an instinctive activity and a clear indication that sub-populations of species can develop and maintain learned behaviors that are passed down through the generations. Family pods tend to return to the same beaches, which are carefully selected for their steep incline towards land and their smooth, loose rocks.
One whale researcher has suggested that the behavior might be tied in with the danger and risk of beaching, giving the orcas a thrill, just as humans might seek by riding a rollercoaster or engaging in adventure sports. Or it may just be that they enjoy the feeling of being massaged on their bellies, with the act helping to strengthen the social bonds between members of the pod.
Whatever the reasoning behind this charming behavior, standing just steps away from these magnificent creatures while they perform the ritual is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Our Little Kai Basecamp is one of the few places where orca belly rubbing has been observed, with the killer whales approaching in the early morning or evening hours. Join us for an unforgettable adventure on our Orca Base Camp or 6-day Blackfish Tour to kayak through British Columbia’s magnificent Johnstone Strait and see orca belling rubbing with your own eyes.
Loading Kayaks on the beach in front of Little Kai Camp
Kayaking on a foggy morning in the Johnstone Strait
Tide pooling at Little Kai Base Camp
Group photo from a BC Unbound Tour
Early morning in the kitchen at Little Kai Base Camp
An evening paddle in the Johnstone Strait