Born Michael Andrew Bigg in London in 1939, his 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, British Columbia and then the University of British Columbia, where he studied falcons, water shrews, and harbor seals. His PhD, awarded in 1972, was based on the reproductive ecology of harbor seals.
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 rumor and speculation. In the waters of the Pacific Northwest, the shooting of killer whales was accepted and even encouraged by local governments and moreover by other governments throughout the world. During the mid-1960s and early 1970s, a change in global opinion saw the development of public & 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.
Between 1962 and 1973, at least 47 killer whales from the British Columbia and Washington coasts were captured for display in captivity, and at least 12 more whales died during capture attempts. 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. In 1970, Bigg became head of marine mammal research at the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, British Columbia 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 British Columbia coast, asking them to record killer whale sightings on one day. No other animal census of this kind had been performed anywhere in the world. The results of the survey taken on Tuesday July 27, 1971, indicated that the number of killer whales in the British Columbia region of the area was at most 350, drastically fewer than had been assumed. Similar surveys in the following two years and subsequent work with photo-identification techniques (described below), substantiated the results.
In 1976, Dr. 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 British Columbia or Washington waters have been taken for captivity, with the exception of Miracle, a young killer whale that had been discovered starving and with bullet wounds. Killer whales for aquarium display continued to be taken from Iceland until 1989, when that country banned further captures. Since that time, killer whale populations at marine parks have been in decline with only a few small-scale captures that have occurred in Argentina, Japan, and Russia.
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. 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. 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.
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.
Killer whale taxonomy and social structure
In 1976, federal funding for Dr. 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 & Oceans again began to provide funding for whale research on the west coast. Still, Bigg continued his research on his own time for 14 years. Marine biologist Dr. 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." In their book Guardians of the Whales, Bruce Obee and Graeme Ellis wrote:
"While studying seals, sea lions, or other species in the field he disregarded departmental memos ordering him to forget about whales... He traveled the coast on his own time, soliciting help from anyone and everyone with his infectious fervor. He'd think nothing of asking a float plane 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."
During this time, Dr. 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." 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 British Columbia and Washington coasts.
One of the key discoveries of Dr. 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 British Columbia and Washington is further divided into two communities, one northern and one southern, that do not interbreed.
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. 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.
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.
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 British Columbia and the Pribilof Islands of Alaska. In 1972, Bigg organized a sea otter conservation translocation of Pacific sea otters from Alaska to Vancouver Island, a population that continues to thrive. He also conducted research on Steller sea lions, California sea lions, and harbor seals.
In 1984, Mike 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 Colin who died in 2009, his wife Silke, a daughter Michelle, two sisters Carol & Pamela, and his parents Andy who died in 2003 and Irene who died in 1993.
Dr. 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. 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 G-46). The "Dr. Michael Bigg Memorial Bursary" was created at the University of Victoria for students of marine biology. The Vancouver Aquarium created a scholarship program sponsored by the Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program. The “Michael A. Bigg Award” is presented annually to a graduate student whose thesis/dissertation research focuses on cetaceans toward the identification or conservation of cetacean habitat.
A male southern resident killer whale of J pod was named after Dr. 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 J-26 (as given by the Center for Whale Research).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.M. 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.