John K. Ford

Dr. John K. Ford

Adjunct Professor
Dept. of Zoology, UBC, and Research Scientist, Pacific Biological Station, Fisheries & Oceans Canada

Education: B.Sc. Hons., Ph.D. (UBC)

Research Interests: Life history, social ecology, and acoustic behaviour of killer whales in British Columbia

Professional Credentials:
2001-present Research Scientist and Head, Cetacean Research Program, Pacific Biological Station, Fisheries & Oceans Canada, Nanaimo, B.C.
Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre: 1989-96 – Marine Mammal Curator and Scientist
– Director of Conservation and Research
Senior Marine Mammal Scientist
NSERC Postdoctoral Fellow, ESL Environmental Sciences Ltd.,Vancouver BC
NSERC Postdoctoral Fellow, Pacific Biological Station, Fisheries & Oceans Canada, Nanaimo, BC
Marine Mammal Husbandry and Training, Vancouver Aquarium

Killer whale pod

Research: Since the 1970s, I have worked in collaboration with a variety of students and colleagues in a long-term study of the identification, social organization, and life history of killer whales. Much of my research and that of my students has involved the function of underwater acoustic signals in social communication of killer whales, the identification and description of group-specific vocal dialects, and interpretations of these dialects to yield insights into the historical social evolution of the populations.

Killer whale identification by dorsal fin

More recently, my studies have focused on the foraging specializations of fish-eating ‘resident’ killer whales, which prey selectively on chinook salmon. Despite the high trophic level of this predator, resident killer whales may be dependent on chinook salmon and abundance of this prey species may have a direct effect on their survival.Since 2001, when I joined the Pacific Biological Station as head of the Cetacean Research Program, my studies have broadened to include assessment of the conservation status of marine mammals and turtles off the Pacific coast that are listed under Canada’s Species-at-Risk Act.

These species include the North Pacific right whale, blue whale, sei whale, fin whale, humpback whale, sea otter and leatherback turtle. With my graduate students Luciano Dalla Rosa and Andrea Rambeau, I have recently undertaken intensive annual surveys for humpback whales off the BC coast, aimed at determining population and patterns of seasonal occurrence, as well as identifying critical habitats. Field methodology is primarily photo-identification of individuals using natural markings on the animals’ tail flukes. Photo-identification data from 2004-05 are being analyzed as part of the multi-national SPLASH project, which is attempting to determine humpback whale abundance, population structure, and migratory destinations across the North Pacific. Details on the Cetacean Research Program can be seen at

Note to prospective graduate students: Unfortunately, I will be unable to take on any new graduate students in 2011 or 2012.

Sample Sounds of Whales:

Hear a sample of killer whale echolocation (Northern Resident killer whales)

a sample of killer whale echolocation (Offshore killer whales)

a superpod of Northern Resident killer whales

a recording of Southern Resident killer whales

a group of transient killer whales

recording of offshore killer whales

 recording of humpback whale feeding calls

 recording of humpback song

 recording of belugasHear a recording of narwhals

Selected Publications

Ford, J.K.B, G.M. Ellis, P.F. Olesiuk, and K.C. Balcomb 2009. Linking killer whale survival and prey abundance: food limitation in the oceans’ apex predator?.Biology Letters

Ford, J.K.B and R.R. Reeves 2008.Fight or flight: antipredator strategies of baleen whales.Mammal Review 38:50-86

Ford, J.K.B., and Ellis, G.M 2006.Selective foraging by fish-eating killer whales Orcinus orca in British Columbia. Marine Ecology Progress Series 316: 185-199

Trites, A.W., Deecke, V.B., Gregr, E.J., Ford, J.K.B., and Olesiuk, P.F 2006. Killer whales, whaling and sequential megafaunal collapse in the North Pacific: a comparative analysis of the dynamics of marine mammals in Alaska and British Columbia following commercial whaling.Marine Mammal Science in press

Deecke, V.B., Ford, J.K.B., and Slater, P.J.B 2005. The vocal behaviour of mammal-eating killer whales: communicating with costly calls. Animal Behaviour 69:395-405