Same-sex behaviours in the Salish Sea

An orca spotted with a rainbow in the Salish Sea.

As it is pride week here in Victoria, we thought we would discuss more about the diversity of social relationships that can be seen in some marine mammals! There are a variety of relationships found within human societies as well as in the animal kingdom. Bruce Bagemihl, a professor from the University of British Columbia, has documented homosexuality in over 450 animal species throughout the animal kingdom – including some species that live here in the Salish Sea!

Male Resident orcas have shown same-sex interactions and these behaviours have been regarded as a very important aspect of their social life! Around the time that the Residents get together to feast on the salmon run is when groups of males spend some together showing each other very affectionate behaviours. This ‘males only’ time can vary in time span from 5 minutes to two hours but is most commonly around an hour. The males splash around at the surface as they gently nudge and rub against each other, paying particular attention to each others bellies, along with other mutually exchanged affectionate behaviours. These displays are usually accompanied by behaviours that we can see out of the water too, such as spy-hopping and tail-lobbing. Adolescent orcas (12-25) are most commonly seen showing these behaviours but it has also been documented in older whales. In fact, some males even have favourite partners that they interact with year after year, forming long lasting relationship!

Gray whales show similar behaviour, with some companionships lasting years, but other individuals may change partners several times during the summer! These duos (and sometimes trios) are seen in gray whales in the summertime while they feed and travel together. They can be seen swimming side by side with their side fins touching, travelling back and forth along coastal inlets with what so far seems to have no purpose other than spending time together – like going for a romantic stroll along the beach (cute)!

Another marine mammal we have here in the Salish Sea that shows affectionate behaviour between same-sex individuals is the harbour seal! These seals participate in a pairrolling. This is when two seals embrace each other in the water while twisting and turning. As they spiral in sync, they can be seen gently mouthing each other and blowing streams of bubbles underwater!

Although these behaviours and bonds are complex and we still have a lot to learn about them, it can remind us that diversity and same-sex relations are present and important to social organizations across the animal kingdom… and that #loveislove.