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ORCA - The Killer Whale 

King of the Sea

The swift and powerful Orca is without a doubt the "King of the seas".  A study in black and white, they have been feared and revered by native peoples for thousands of years.  Orca will eat any animal that swims in its waters, from herring and salmon to seals and sea lions, moose, whales and even Great White Sharks.  It is surprising, but there have been no documented attacks on humans, resulting in death, in the wild, although trainers have been killed by orca in captivity.  There is one account of a surfer being grabbed by a killer whale and released.   

Killer whales seem to know no fear, and are ruthless killers of their prey.  Translations of the name Orca from ancient languages alludes to the fear man once had of these creatures.  The Greek translation of Orca means "killer from hell".  Their Latin scientific name, Orcinus Orca, means a kind of whale, of or belonging to the realms of the dead.  Man assumed that he to would be a target of the killer whale if he were in the water.  This fear led to the persecution of killer whales.  "In the 1950's the US Air Force practiced strafing runs on pods of killer whales". *  Today some commercial fishermen are still shooting killer whales because the whales are stealing their fish.  It has not been until recent years, when killer whales were captured and put on display in aquariums that they earned the respect they deserve.  They proved themselves to be intelligent, acrobatic and friendly, and people around the world have fallen in love with them. 

 

This love for Orca has created a new set of challenges for them.  It has led to live captures of killer whales to support a tremendous growth of aquarium industries.  Although we have learned much from killer whales in captivity, I question if it is humane treatment to place this nomadic, free spirited, intelligent animal in captivity.  Captivity has led to great concerns over the care and treatment of these animals, along with a desire to see them in the wild.  From this desire has come another challenge to Orca, the growth of the whale watching industries.  Much can be learned from observing these magnificent animals in their natural habitat, but what is the impact of a group of boats following a pod of Orca for hours?

Whale Watching:

When going whale watching try ensure you are going with a responsible company that is concerned with the welfare of the whales.  All marine mammals including Killer Whales,  and the endangered Humpback Whales are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).  Guidelines for observation have been established, in accordance with the MMPA, by the National Marine Fisheries Service.  Approach distances and vessel activities in the vicinity of marine mammals are addressed in these guidelines.  The captain of your whale watching vessel should be conscientious about adhering to these guidelines, as well as providing passengers a quality viewing experience. 

The Killer Whales:

There are three distinct types of killer whales that we are aware of today.  Each of these types look similar, but have specific genetic differences and specific food preferences and habits.  These three types are identified as Resident, Transient and Offshore.   

Resident: 

Resident killer whales are the most commonly sighted.  Although named resident it is not because they remain in one area, it is because they frequent certain areas consistently.  They are nomadic just as the transient and offshore killer whales, but have a much smaller range.  The resident killer whales  favorite food is salmon, so they frequent areas where the salmon are abundant.  They are always on the move, sometimes traveling as much as 100 miles in a day, but may be seen in a general area for a month or more and then not seen again for weeks.  As the salmon go, so goes the resident killer whales.  Range for resident killer whale pods may be as much as 800 miles or as little as 200 miles.  Resident killer whales live in very complex and cohesive family groups known as pods.  Resident pods are generally larger than the transient and offshore pods, having up to 50 or more members.  Several pods occasionally get together and form what are called superpods, sometimes numbering in excess of 150 animals.  The social bondsOrca breach.jpg (75421 bytes) within these pods are stronger than those in many human societies.  Each  resident pod has its own distinct dialect of the killer whale language.  Resident killer whales seem to be the most acrobatic of the killer whales.  We usually see them spread out and cruising in small groups, breaching, spyhopping and tail slapping as they feed randomly on the salmon. 

 

Transient:

Transient killer whales generally travel in much smaller groups than the residents, usually up to 7 or 8 animals.  These are referred to as groups rather than pods because they do not have as strong a social bond as the residents, and do not necessarily remain as a family unit,  probably due to their diet.  They are generally seen cruising along the shorelines hunting for their favorite food, the harbor seal.  It is probably the transients that gained orca the nick name "killer whales" because of their ruthless  eating habits.  To avoid injury from the sharp teeth of the seals and sea lions which is their primary diet, they will usually disable their prey before killing and eating it.  This may involve throwing it in the air, slapping it with their tails, ramming it, or breaching and landing on it.  The whole process can be quite lengthy at times, seeming to be like torture for the prey, but is primarily for safety and training for the young killer whales.  Transient killer whales will eat anything that swims in its waters, except, apparently, man. The range for transient killer whales is unknown, but may be as much as 1500 miles or more.

 

Offshore:

Offshore orca were given this name for what the name implies.  They remain offshore cruising the open oceans feeding primarily on fish.  They have been seen traveling in groups of up to 60 animals.  Currently there is not a lot known about these animals but they can be distinguished gynetically from the residents and transients. 

 

Communication: 

Killer whales utilize an echolocation system to "see" underwater.  Visibility is restricted underwater, so they utilize a series of clicking sounds to locate and identify objects in theCruisers 1.jpg (64383 bytes) water, including their prey.  This system works like sonar, or a fish finder.  Communication is identified as whistles and calls.  The calls of each pod has unique differences, indicating that each pod has its own dialect.  Transient group calls are so different from resident calls that they may speak a different language.

 

 

***QUICK FACTS ABOUT KILLER WHALES***

Approximate population common to Southern Alaska:

Resident  ........................................................................250

Transient  .........................................................................50

World wide .................................................................. ????

Length:

Birth ............................................................. 2 meter...7 feet

Adult Male ............................................... 10 meter....30 feet

Adult Female .............................................. 8 meter....25 feet

Weight:

Birth ............................................................ 180 kilo...400 lbs 

Adult female ......................................... 6,400 kilo...14,000 lbs

Adult Male ........................................... 9,090 kilo...20,000 lbs

Calving Interval ...................................................... 2-12 Years 

Parturition (birth) time..................Usually spring or early summer

Gestation Period ...................................................... 17 months    

Sexual Maturity:

Females .............................................................. 10 - 12 years

Males ................................................................. 15 - 20 years

Life expectancy - females .................................. 50 to 80 years

Life expectancy - males ..................................... 30 to 60 years

Maximum Speed ...................................................... 35 MPH   

Cruising speed ..................................................... 6 to 8 MPH

* Killer whales of Southern Alaska by Matkin, Craig, Graeme Ellis, Eva Saulitas, Lance Barrett-Lennard & Dena Matkin 

MERSEA is a non-profit organization.  It is currently supported solely by membership dues, donations and its adopt-a-whale program.   If you would like to help make a difference click the link for more information about joining MERSEA, adopting a whale or making a donation.  Thank you!

More Info

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Pod of Resident Orca

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