50 years ago, scientists studied orcas in the wild for the first time

Excerpt from the January 18, 1969 issue of Science News

killer whale

IN BLACK AND WHITE  Killer whales captured off the coast of British Columbia in 1968 offered scientists the first chance to study the animals in their natural habitat.

Christopher Michel/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Science News cover from January 18, 1969The astonishing capture [of seven orcas off British Columbia] has made possible the first scientific study of killer whales in their more or less natural environment…. There is little doubt that the animals have a sophisticated language with which they can communicate with each other, but practically nothing is known about the complexity of their speech. — Science NewsJanuary 18, 1969


The 1968 orca captures in Garden Bay opened doors to studying the animals’ behavior. Research shows that Orcinus orca family groups share distinct dialects (SN: 1/12/80, p. 21). In 2018, scientists reported recording 14-year-old Wikie imitating the words hello and one, two, three, highlighting the likely role that imitation plays in how killer whales learn dialects (SN: 3/3/18, p. 5). As for the Garden Bay orcas, they were far from the last killer whales captured. From 1961 to 2018, at least 166 orcas were caught in the wild. Another 34 bred in captivity are used for research or exhibition, according to the nonprofit group Whale and Dolphin Conservation, based in Chippenham, England.

Mike is the audience engagement editor. He graduated from the University of Maryland with a double major in journalism and psychology. He previously wrote for The Palm Beach Post, covering breaking news.

More Stories from Science News on Animals