The Orca or Killer Whale
The Orca or Killer Whale
There is something so fascinating about watching Killer Whales. They are these amazingly intelligent mammals; the more I learn about them, it makes me want to study them and photograph them in the wild.
I had the privilege of getting to do just that: photograph the Orcas in the wild. Last August we went to Washington and went out on a boat on the Puget Sound. We got right into the middle of what they call a superpod of Orcas. There were three different pods of Orcas (J, K, and L pods) socializing all around us. We saw what the guide estimated as 65 to 80 different Orcas and got to see them exhibit a lot of the different type of behavior that I studied when I first wrote this lens. It was a dream come true for me, and honestly on my bucket list!
They are beautiful to watch as they move through the water, intimidating and yet somehow they don't seem threatening. I loved watching them care for their babies.
Two Orcas near the San Juan Islands
Are Killer Whales and Dolphins Related?
Killer Whales are in the same family as dolphins. They classify them scientifically as follows:
- Class: Mammals
They breath air, they give birth to live young, they mothers nurse their young, they have hair at some point in their lives. With Orcas, their hair falls off before birth, but they may have a tiny bit left while they are babies.
- They are in the Order of Cetacea
To be in this order an animal must have their forelimbs modified into flippers, a flattened horizontal tail, one or two nostrils on top of their head to breath through, and no hind limbs. The word "cetacean" is derived from the Greek word for whale, "ketos."
- There is two suborders: the Odontoceti (toothed whales) which is what the killer whale is and the Mysticeti (baleen whales) like the Gray Whale.
- The word "Odontoceti" comes from the Greek word for tooth, "odontos".
- Their family is Delphinidae, which has 36 species including all the species of dolphins, Pilot, false killer, and melon headed whales.
- Which brings us to their species of Orcinus Orca.
- The Latin name Orcinus comes from the Greek meaning of "belonging to Orcus."
- Orcus was a Roman god of the netherworld, and this genus name is likely a reference to the ferocious reputation of the killer whale.
- They received the name of "Killer Whale" because they kill whales.
This is what started me on my journey into studying the Orcas. I was watching a special on the animal planet with some footage that had been filmed from a cruise ship. There was a single seal on an ice drift and they filmed the Orcas working together as a team to "de-seal" the ice! The exhibited an incredible amount of intelligence as they worked through the problem as a team.
They would "spy hop" this is where they stand almost straight up in the water and bob up and down to see what is on top of the ice and where it is.
They would launch themselves onto the side of the ice, I think in an attempt to tip the ice so the seal would float towards them.
And what happened next was when I realized their extreme intelligence. They worked as a team, with six to eight whales swimming away from the ice, and their they synchronized their swimming, traveling fast right toward the ice, then dove together at the last minute and sent a wave of water over the top of the ice that washed the seal right off of it. With a whale waiting at the other end.
They did not eat the seal right away, it popped right back up on the ice, they may have even put it back up there. Then they did the same thing again. They had a marine biologist narrating, that said she believed they were actually training the younger whale how to hunt for their food.
Eventually they allowed the young to eat the seal as a reward for their learning.
It was just incredible, I was amazed at their intelligence and teamwork!
So let's look at some other behavior known to these whales:
Orcas when hunting marine animals will swim fast toward the beach and actually surface on the beach to catch their prey.
Orca Behaviors: Breaching
Breaching occurs when a whale, flips itself entirely out of the water, twists in midair, and lands loudly on its side.
We had the privilege of watching Orcas Breaching on the Puget Sound last August, it was incredible. Unfortunately the memory stays in my head and not on a photo, every time one would breach I would bring my camera up and catch the large splash in the water!
Video of Orcas Breaching in Resurrection Bay, AK
Orca Spy Hopping
Though there was no seal stranded on an iceberg, when we went on a whale watching tour on the Puget Sound last August, we were so lucky.
We not only saw Orcas, but we saw what they call a superPod of Orcas, three pods meeting and greeting in the Puget Sound.
We got to witness all sorts of the behavior of the Orcas. Above is a photo I took of Orcas spyhopping.
Orca Tail Slapping
Orcas slap the water or prey with their tail.
Tail slapping when prey is not present is thought to be a form of communication.
I think that is what they were doing in this photo I took on the Puget Sound, they seemed to be communicating.
Where to Find Killer Whales or Orcas
Killer Whales Are in Every Ocean on Earth
There normal range is in coastal waters where there food is plentiful, but they are also found out in the open ocean.
Orcas are more plentiful in the icier waters of the Arctic and Antarctic. Which makes for a photographers dream with the deep blue water, with the white snow and ice for a background.
There are three pods known to frequent the Puget Sound in Washington. The J, K, and L pods. J pod seems to stay there most all year, the K and L pods leave at certain times of the year.
Two Orcas Versus Seals
What Does a Killer Whale Eat?
What do Killer whales eat? Well that varies on what is believed to be the different subspecies of the Orca. They haven't officially named the subspecies but they have been called type A, B, or C. More commonly they are named by their behavior, they can actually be identified by distinct differences in their appearance, and there are genetic differences between the three groups.
There are the resident Killer Whales. These whales stay in their home area, mostly where their food is. They eat a diet of mostly fish and squid. Salmon seems to be their favorite in the summertime when the fish are plentiful. They live in large pods dominated by the matriarch of the family. They don't travel far from their home. It has been noted that the female whales have a rounded dorsal fin tip that ends in a sharp corner and the saddle patch may have some black in with the gray.
A superpod gathering of all three pods on the Puget Sound, two transient pods and the resident pod.
Then there is the transient population of Killer whales, these whales travel longer distances. They eat a diet of marine animals; Harbour seals, Sea lions, Dall's porpoises, Harbour porpoises, Pacific Whitesided dolphins, Grey, Minke, baleen whales, other toothed whales, walruses, and occasionally sea otters. It has also been noted that the females of this subspecies have dorsal fins that are more triangular and pointed than those of residents as well as the saddle patch is further forward in the transient subspecies and are more solidly gray in color.
There is a third subspecies of whales called the offshore Orcas. These whales are believed to eat a diet of fish, sharks, and turtles. The travel in large groups or pods up to sixty in numbers. The females have a more continuous rounded dorsal fin. This group has not been studied as much as the other two, due to their proximity from shore.
A Superpod Gathering of Orcas
Orca Hunting Spectacle
The Lifespan and Reproduction of the Killer Whale
Females Orcas become sexually mature at around six to fifteen years of age. The mature younger in captivity than they do in the wild.
Males become sexually mature around ten to fifteen years of age, but do not normally breed until twenty one years of age. Though in captivity they have witnessed a male successfully breeding at the age of eight.
The females breed with multiple male partners, they are polygamous.
After breeding the gestation period varies from fifteen to eighteen months.
The mothers calve, with a single offspring, about once every three to five years. Most births observed have been tail first, but head first births have also been witnessed.
Newborn mortality is said to be high, in the wild nearly half of all calves don't make it to their first birthday.
Mother Orcas produce milk and the calves will nurse for up to two years and start to eating solid food at about twelve months of age.
One point I found interesting is the family bond of the Orca residents. All the resident Orca pod members, including males of all ages, help care for the younger calves.
Cows breed until the age of 40, the average cow raises five offspring.
The average lifespan of a female is around fifty years, but they may live into their seventies and eighties in some rare instances.
The average lifespan of a male orca is thirty years with rare longevity of up to sixty years of age.
There is told the tale of one male that lived to at least eight nine years old. He was known as "Old Tom" and was spotted every winter between 1843 and 1932 off New South Wales, Australia.
Healthy adult Orcas have no natural enemies. The young, and weak may fall prey to sharks.
Disease, parasites and stranding on the shore attribute to the longevity of the killer whale.
Your Thoughts? Were the Orcas Playing or Mating?
What do you think these Orcas were doing? I was not sure if they were playing or mating, but they seemed very gentle and happy doing it.
Two Orcas Lifting a Baby Orca to the Surface
The other behavior we were privilege to witness when we saw the superpods of Orcas on the Puget Sound were things that we expected and hoped to see.
But the photo above shows a very special moment that was so heart touching it not only took my breath away but brought tears to my eyes and still does.
Two Orcas lifted this baby Orca to the surface of the water to breathe. Just so beautiful and touching!
Killer Whale Pod (Hosking-U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
A Mystery About the Killer Whale in Alaska
Sounds of the Orca
Killer Whales use sounds to communicate and to "echo-locate."
The whales make all different sounds including whistles, echolocation clicks, pulsed calls, low-frequency pops, and jaw claps that sound like moans, trills, grunts, whistles, squeaks, and creaking doors. These sounds vary in length and volume and the pattern of the sounds.
They make these sounds by moving air between the nasal sacs and their blowhole.
It really makes one wonder what they are saying to each other, doesn't it?
When using their echolocating, the clicks they use much like a sonar, sending out a series of clicks that bounce off objects and send them back to the whale, letting them know how close something is to their proximity. It also tells them how large it is, what it's shape is, and how fast it is moving.
Each individual group of killer whales, has a distinct dialect that is used by all the whales in that pod.
Kayaking with Killer Whales
Physical Characteristics of the Killer Whale
Shaped a bit like a torpedo, the killer whale can travel quickly through water.
They vary in size, the male Orca are larger than the females. The males average is nineteen to twenty two feet long, and weighs between 9000 and 12000 lbs.
The largest male Killer Whale ever record was a whopping thirty two feet long, and weighed in at 22,000 lbs. That is huge!
The females range in length from 16 to 19 feet and usually weigh around 2500 lbs.
The Orcas have very distinct coloring, their black is very black, their white very white, with a patch of gray behind the dorsal fin, called a "saddle." The white oval spot behind their eye is appropriately called an "eyespot."
Which brings us to the dorsal fin, the tall fin that you most often see sticking up out of the water is called the dorsal fin. They have a blowhole just behind their "melon," which is their head. Their rostum is by their mouth (don't ask me why it is called that). Baby orcas if they retain any hair at all it will often be around their rostum.
Orca Dorsal Fins
Orcas Have Digits Inside Their Flippers
Their "fluke" is the flat part of their tail that propels them through the water so efficiently. They don't swim with a side to side motion, it is an up and down motion.
They have a flipper, like an arm on each side, called a "pectoral flipper."
The really cool little bit of trivia on the Killer whale that I found is what lies inside their pectoral flipper. Inside their flipper lies their skeletal digits. They actually have five digits inside their flippers, much like the human hand.
Orca in Prince William Sound (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
- Orca-Facts 4
WHAT IS AN ORCA? Residents - Behaviour RESTING: Orcas most commonly rest in their social groups while swimming slowly (2 knots or less) close together, closely synchronizing their breathing. Orcas also rest quietly while lying almost motionless
- Orca - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Orca From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Jump to: navigation, search For other uses, see Orca (disambiguation). Orca Transient Orcas near Unimak Island, eastern Aleutian Islands, AlaskaSize comparison against an average human...