Orca whales. Info, descriptions, and photos of the orca, or killer whale, icons in the Pacific Northwest, plus links to whale watching cruises.
One of the beauties of the Northeast Pacific Ocean is the Orca whale (a.k.a. Killer Whale).
Widely recognized for its distinctive black and white markings, the Orca is found in all oceans, and is considered common along the coast of Washington, Oregon and British Colombia. In fact, the Orca is the most widely distributed mammal in the world, after humans.
The most studied group of killer whales are quite possibly the resident groups found right here in the coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest. Most of what scientists have learned about this species of whale comes from studying our local Orca whales.
These include three groups of Orcas: Resident, Transient, and Offshore. The “Southern Resident” population, which makes its home in the coastal waters of British Columbia and Washington are the only known population of Orca to be considered “U.S. killer whales," and are currently listed on the United States Endangered Species List.
There are 3 full-time resident orca whale pods living in the Pacific Northwest. Known as "J," "K," or "L," pods, they make up one community totaling about 85 individuals. (Numerous transient individuals pass through seasonally increasing the population by about 250.) Each resident whale is named with a letter, for the pod they belong to, and a number which designates the order in which they were identified. For example: K20 was the 20th whale to be identified as belonging to the K-pod.
Considered by whale lovers to be extended family members, whales are also given nicknames, for example K-26 is known affectionately as Lobo, K-38 is Comet and J-2 is called Granny because she is estimated to be around 103 years old.
Wouldn't it be fun, when you spot an orca in the wild, to be able to identify it by both name and number?!
The Pacific Northwest is rich in Native American influence and history. So it is no surprise that a majestic creature such as the orca, so easily found off the coast, would hold a significant place in local indigenous cultures.
In fact, one does not have to go very far to find the orca used in Native sculptures, paintings, even totem poles. Along with these unique artistic expressions are legends and myths involving the orca whale that go back many generations.
Natsilane was a talented wood carver among the Tlingit*, who married the Chief's daughter. His new brothers-in-law, driven by jealously over Natsilane's skill, came up with a scheme to take him along on a traditional sea lion hunt and then abandon him to die at sea.
Stranded in the middle of nowhere on a small rock, Natsilane saw a sea lion beckoning to him underwater. The sea lion's son had been injured by a spear during the hunting trip, and he asked Natsilane to heal him. After removing the spear, Natsilane was rewarded with special powers by the Sea Lion Chief, and helped back to shore.
Still feeling angry about being left to
die at sea, Natsilane began to carve a whale using different types of wood.
The first two whales were simply carried away by the waves, but the third,
carved from yellow cedar, came alive. Immediately,
Natsilane sent it to take vengeance on his brothers-in-law. The killer whale
found them, destroyed their canoe, and killed them all. But Natsilane soon
regretted his decision, and upon returning to him, he told the whale not to
hurt any human ever again.
Orcas in the wild seem to have no desire to prey on humans, and the Tlingits noticed this. Besides attempting to describe the creation of orcas, their legend also attempts to answer the question, "Why don't killer whales prey on humans?"
science has not been able to answer this question for certain, observation has
revealed that this question may have multiple explanations. Among the possibilities,
three likely answers exist:
The only documented attacks on humans have occurred from killer whales in captivity, such as in large aquariums. Many experts agree that when these outbursts have happened, the animals are not actually trying to be violent, but are simply taking play a little too far.
However, the argument is still made by some that the attacks are in fact, on purpose, a result of being taken from their pods, left in a too-small tank, and being fed by hand, as opposed to hunting in the wild.
Local Native American Names for Orca
Orcas are classified as toothed whales, or Odontoceti, having anywhere between 20 to 26 pairs of large, interlocking teeth. Their teeth curve backwards, as well as in, which is helpful in catching dinner. On average, an orca tooth is 3 inches long and about 1 inch around.
The Orca whale is the largest member of the dolphin family.
The cylindrical shape of the body is perfect for diving and catching prey, as it allows for less drag in the water.
The killer whale possesses good eyesight, as well as excellent hearing; but when hunting, these creatures won't be following their nose – they have no sense of smell.
The orca has three different types of fins:
Reproduction and breeding
Female orca whales reach sexual maturity around age 10, and their breeding years end at around age 40. They will have raised 5 young, on average. Males mature around age 15, but often do not reproduce until age 21.
Orcas breed in winter to early spring, in warmer waters and near the surface. The gestation period lasts about 16-17 months. Typically, a mother will birth a single calf about once every 5 years.
Calves are born between the months of October and March,
tail first, near the surface of the water. Within the first 10 seconds of
birth, the newborn swims to the surface to take its first breath, helped by its
mother. 30 minutes later, the calf can fully swim on its own. Calves will
nurse several times an hour for only 5 to 10 seconds at a time.
The average lifespan for a female in the wild is 50 years,
but she might also live up to 80–90 years. Males live an average of 29 years in the wild,
with a maximum of 50–60 years.
diet is quite diverse, and can vary between distinct groups. Some orca
populations feed only on fish,
while others prefer to feed on other marine mammals. Their diet may include fish, seals, penguins, rays, even
sharks. In fact, worldwide, scientists have observed orcas feeding on 140 different types of
Ironically, orca whales are actually a picky eaters. The Southern Resident killer whales located
in the Puget Sound have been observed
allowing entire schools of salmon to pass by untouched, because they weren't fatty enough for their taste.
Transient whales, though they enjoy a broader diet,
were once spotted hunting a grey whale, though in the end only ate its tongue!
If you go whale watching and come across an individual orca pod, notice that it is always be led by a single female matriarch. The family group consists of her children and grandchildren.
Even a male killer whale will stay within the
family, leaving only for a few days at a time to mate with females of a different pod. But he will always come
back home. In fact, a male killer whale
has such a bond to his mother that he will spend at least 40% of his time
within a body length of her.
The benefit to his mom? He makes a great “babysitter” for any younger siblings.
whales, orcas use echolocation to detect the whereabouts of prey, and the characteristics of that prey. They can produce three different types of sounds: clicks,
whistles, and pulsed calls. These
sounds are not merely for hunting, but allow the whales to communicate with one
another using distinct changes in tone,
and rate of pulses. Remarkably, each pod has its own dialect that is unique to them!
* The indigenous people group known as the Tlingit make their home along the coast of Southeast Alaska and down through British Columbia, Canada. Their name means: "People of the Tides."