Michael Bigg

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Michael Bigg
Sm mbigg.jpg
Born 1939
London, England
Died 18 October 1990(1990-10-18)
Citizenship Canadian
Fields Cetology, marine biology
Institutions Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans
Alma mater University of British Columbia
Doctoral advisor Dean Fisher
Known for Killer whale (orca) research

Michael Bigg (1939–1990) was a Canadian marine biologist who is recognized as the founder of modern research on killer whales.[1] With his colleagues, he developed new techniques for studying killer whales and conducted the first population census of the animals. Bigg's work in wildlife photo-identification enabled the longitudinal study of individual killer whales, their travel patterns, and their social relationships in the wild, and revolutionized the study of cetaceans.

Early life[edit]

Born Michael Andrew Bigg in London in 1939, Bigg's family moved to the west coast of Canada when he was eight years old. In his youth, Bigg enjoyed exploring the British Columbia wilderness. According to his father, newspaper publisher Andy Bigg, Michael's early life experiences ingrained in him an immense love of nature. Bigg attended Cowichan Senior Secondary School in Duncan, BC and then the University of British Columbia, where he studied falcons, water shrews, and harbour seals. His Ph.D., awarded in 1972, was based on the reproductive ecology of harbour seals.[1]

Killer whale research[edit]

Bull orca victoria.jpg

In recent decades, the public has come to appreciate and be fascinated by killer whales. However, for at least a century before the mid-1960s, killer whales were widely feared as dangerous, savage predators, a reputation based on rumour and speculation. In the waters of the Pacific Northwest, the shooting of killer whales was accepted and even encouraged by governments.[2] The mid-1960s and early 1970s saw the development of public and scientific awareness of the species, starting with the first live-capture and display of a killer whale known as Moby Doll, that had been harpooned off Saturna Island in 1964.[2]


Between 1962 and 1973, at least 47 killer whales from the B.C. and Washington coasts were captured for display in captivity, and at least 12 more whales died during capture attempts.[3] It was assumed that the killer whale population in these waters numbered in the thousands; however, as a standard wildlife-management practice for "harvestable" animals, the Canadian government determined that a census should be done.[2] In 1970, Bigg became head of marine mammal research at the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, B.C. and was given the task of the census.

Bigg's first technique was to send 15,000 questionnaires to boaters, lighthouse keepers, fishermen, and others who frequented the B.C. coast, asking them to record killer whale sightings on one day.[2] No other animal census of this kind had been performed anywhere in the world.[4] The results of the survey, taken on July 27, 1971, indicated that the number of killer whales in the B.C. region of the area was at most 350, drastically fewer than had been assumed.[2] Similar surveys in the following two years and subsequent work with photo-identification techniques (described below), substantiated the results.

In 1976, Bigg submitted his report, indicating that the rate of captures from such a small population was unsustainable and recommending restrictions on the capture of killer whales from Canadian waters. The same year, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service conducted a killer whale survey in the Washington coast, which also yielded low numbers, and public opinion had begun to turn against whale capture. Since 1976, no killer whales in B.C. or Washington waters have been taken for captivity, with the exception of Miracle, a young whale that had been discovered starving and with bullet wounds.[2] Killer whales for aquaria continued to be taken from Iceland until 1989, when that country banned further captures. Since that time, although orca populations at marine parks are in decline, only a few small-scale captures have occurred, in Argentina, Japan and Russia.

Photo-identification techniques[edit]

A killer whale surfaces, showing its dorsal fin and saddle patch.

In the early 1970s, Bigg and his colleagues discovered that individual killer whales can be identified from a good photograph of the animal's dorsal fin and saddle patch, taken when it surfaces. Variations such as nicks, scratches, and tears on the dorsal fin, and the pattern of white or grey in the saddle patch, are sufficient to distinguish killer whales from each other.

Although it had been recognized that some animals could be identified from obvious distinctive features, such as scars, Bigg and his colleagues discovered that the dorsal fin and saddle patch area of every killer whale was sufficiently distinctive to allow the individual to be reliably identified at sea using photographic techniques.[5] The technique enabled the local population of killer whales to be counted each year rather than estimated. It also allowed longitudinal study of individual whales, their travel patterns, and their social relationships in the wild, and revolutionized the study of cetaceans.[2] Just a few years previously, whale research had meant studying captive or dead animals, and the study of living wild whales had been virtually nonexistent.[2]

For killer whales, researchers arbitrarily chose the left side of the animal as the one to be used for identification. Bigg's team of killer-whale photographers and spotters quickly grew to include hundreds of volunteers from along the coast, a project that was eventually formalized in 1999 as the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network. In 1975, researchers examining thousands of black-and-white photographs began to assemble a catalog containing a photograph of every killer whale in British Columbia's waters, a catalog that has been continually updated and used to this day.[2]

Killer whale taxonomy and social structure[edit]

In 1976, federal funding for Bigg's killer whale research ended, and he was reassigned to other projects. It was not until the early 1990s, after Bigg had died, that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans again began to provide funding for whale research on the west coast.[2] Still, Bigg continued his research on his own time for 14 years. Biologist Graeme Ellis, who began working with Bigg in 1974, said that in the times that funding for killer whale research was absent, "it had become so fascinating we couldn't let it go - for many years it was done with our own money and our own time."[6] In their book Guardians of the Whales, Bruce Obee and Graeme Ellis wrote:

Bigg and his colleagues discovered that resident killer whales travel in extremely stable matrilineal groups.

"While studying seals, sea lions, or other species in the field he disregarded departmental memos ordering him to forget about whales... He travelled the coast on his own time, soliciting help from anyone and everyone with his infectious fervour. He'd think nothing of asking a floatplane pilot to land beside a sport fisherman, then persuade the fisherman to run him over to a nearby pod of whales and click pictures for the rest of the day."[2]

During this time Bigg, together with friends and associates, assembled what has been described as "one of the most thorough data sets for any wild mammal... the killer whale was transformed from one of the least known to among the best understood of all cetaceans."[5] His records included births, deaths, diet, and social associations. Bigg and his colleagues gathered enough data to produce a complete family tree documenting the maternal-side relationships of every killer whale on the B.C. and Washington coasts.

One of the key discoveries of Bigg's team was that there were two types of killer whales living near the British Columbia coastline: residents which ate almost exclusively fish, and transients which hunted marine mammals and other warm-blooded prey. Resident and transient killer whale societies are separate, and the two types tend to avoid each other. The resident killer whale population of B.C. and Washington is further divided into two communities, one northern and one southern, that do not interbreed.[2]

Another discovery was that resident killer whales have one of the most stable social structures of any animal species. Pods of killer whales had previously been assumed to consist of a few adult males and a harem of potential female mates.[7] Bigg's team slowly realized that killer whale pods are matrilineal: Killer whales travel not with their mates, but with their mothers and maternal relatives. The basis of resident killer whale groupings is the rule that each animal travels primarily with its mother throughout their lives.[4]

Although his research was based in the eastern North Pacific, Bigg mentored killer whale researchers from around the world, who sought his advice for their own studies.[1]

Other research[edit]

Johnstone Strait is the summer home to a large number of resident killer whales, and includes the Robson Bight (Michael Bigg) Ecological Reserve

Although he is best known for his work with killer whales, Bigg spent most of his career studying other marine mammals. He researched northern fur seals in B.C. and the Pribilof Islands of Alaska. In 1972, Bigg organized a translocation of sea otters from Alaska to Vancouver Island,[5] a population that continues to thrive. He also conducted research on Steller sea lions, California sea lions, and harbour seals.[1]

Death and memorials[edit]

In 1984, Bigg was diagnosed with leukemia. While ill, he continued to work to complete his final report on killer whales, and was able to see it in print shortly before he died on 18 October 1990. He was 51. Bigg was survived by a son, a daughter, two sisters, and his parents.[5]

Bigg's ashes were scattered in Johnstone Strait. Attendees, and the press, noted that more than thirty killer whales appeared in the waters in time for the ceremony.[1] The Robson Bight Ecological Reserve in Johnstone Strait, which was designated as a killer whale sanctuary in 1982, was renamed the Robson Bight (Michael Bigg) Ecological Reserve. The reserve includes one of the few "rubbing beaches" in the world, where killer whales gather to rub against smooth underwater pebbles.

A female resident killer whale, born shortly before Bigg's death in 1990, is unofficially named "M.B." (her official name is G46).[1] The Dr. Michael Bigg Memorial Bursary was created at the University of Victoria for students of marine biology.

A male Southern Resident killer whale of J pod was named after Bigg, having been born in the year Bigg died. This whale is known as "Mike" (as given by the Whale Museum) and has an alphanumerical designation of J26 (as given by the Center for Whale Research).

Selected publications[edit]

  • BIGG, M.A. 1982. An assessment of killer whale (Orcinus orca) stocks off Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Rep.Int.Whal. Comm., 32:655-666.
  • BIGG, M.A., I.B.MACASKIE, AND G. ELLIS. 1976. Abundance and movements of killer whales off eastern and southern Vancouver Island, with comments on management. Arctic Biol.Sta., Ste. Anne de Bellevue, Quebec. 20 pp.
  • Bigg, M.A., G.M. Ellis, J.K.B. Ford and K.C. Balcomb. 1987. Killer whales - a study of their identification, genealogy and natural history in British Columbia and Washington State. Phantom Press, Nanaimo, British Columbia
  • Bigg, M.A., P.F. Olesiuk, G.M. Ellis, J.K.B. Ford and K.C. Balcomb. 1990. Social organization and genealogy of resident killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the coastal waters of British Columbia and Washington State. Report of the International Whaling Commission (Special Issue 12):383-405.


  1. ^ a b c d e f T.W. Paterson (Jul 24, 2002). "This doctor left a Bigg legacy". Harbour City Star. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Obee, Bruce; Graeme Ellis (1992). Elaine Jones, ed. Guardians of the Whales: The Quest to Study Whales in the Wild. North Vancouver, British Columbia: Whitecap Books. pp. 1–27. ISBN 0-88240-428-8. 
  3. ^ Morton, Alexandra (2002). Listening to Whales: What the Orcas have Taught Us. Toronto: Random House. pp. 65–67. ISBN 0-345-44288-1. 
  4. ^ a b Francis, Daniel; Gil Hewlett (2008). Operation Orca: Springer, Luna, and the Struggle to Save West Coast Killer Whales. Madeira Park, B.C.: Harbour Publishing Co. Ltd. pp. 22–25, 77–83. ISBN 1-55017-426-6. 
  5. ^ a b c d Ford, John K.B.; Graeme M. Ellis (July 1991). "Memories". Marine Mammal Science (Society for Marine Mammalogy) 7 (3): 326–328. doi:10.1111/j.1748-7692.1991.tb00110.x. 
  6. ^ Spalding, David A.E. (1998). Whales of the West Coast. Harbour Publishing. pp. 118–121. ISBN 1-55017-199-2. 
  7. ^ Garrett, Howard. "Orcas of the Salish Sea". Orca Network. Retrieved 2009-05-31. 

External links[edit]