SPECIES FACTS

Scientific Name
Orcinus orca
Life Expectancy
Average 70 years

BIRTH FACTS

Weight
400 lbs (181 kg)
Length
6-7 ft (1.8-2.1 m)

ADULT FEMALE FACTS

Weight
4 tons
Length
23 ft (8.2 m)

ADULT MALE FACTS

Weight
9 tons
Length
32 ft (9.6 m)

Orcas are the top predator in the sea, and the largest member of the dolphin family. Also known as killer whales, they are icons of the Pacific Northwest, and the signature species of The Whale Trail.

Orcas are one of the most widely dispersed marine mammals, found in every ocean and both Poles. Though they are the top predator, what they eat and how they hunt is cultural – taught to them by their families.

Three ecotypes or kinds of orcas live along the North American Pacific Coast. The ecotypes are differentiated by diet, social structure and range.

  • Resident orcas are fish eaters, and prefer Chinook salmon above all. They live in large, stable family groups called called pods, and generally return to the same feeding grounds throughout the year.
  • Transient orcas hunt marine mammals such as porpoises, seals and other whales. Compared to resident orcas, their family groups are smaller, their range is wider and their travel patterns are less predictable. Or at least, known. 
  • Offshore orcas are also fish eaters, and live in the open ocean. The culture and behavior of these pods is not as well known. They are very occasionally seen from shore along the Pacific Coast and the inland waters of the Salish Sea.

 

Northern Resident Orcas

Northern Resident Orcas are similar to the Southern Resident Orcas in appearance. They are large black on the back and white on the belly animals. They can have open grey saddle patches and curved (towards the back) dorsal fins.

Southern Resident Orcas

The Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) are a group of orcas comprised of three pods or family groups. These pods are J,K, and L, and as of December 2017, there were 76 SRKW. J pod currently has 23 members, K pod has 18, and L pod has 35.

Transient (Biggs) Orcas

Transient pods are typically smaller than resident pods. Transients are also less vocal, and tend to hunt quietly. Unlike fish, mammals have excellent hearing, making it essential for transient orcas to travel in quiet and stealthy groups. Transients...

HOW TO SPOT

Orcas are best spotted by their dorsal fins which can be as tall as 6 feet on males, and 2 to 3 feet on females.

Watch for their blows, which are low and bushy compared to baleen whales.

The number of whales is also a clue – resident orcas are tightly bonded to their families and travel in larger groups than Biggs orcas (generally).

Orcas are the largest member of the dolphin family, and display a wide variety of surface behaviors. You might see them breach, or spyhop, or roll on their sides and slap their pectoral fins.

Orcas work together to catch their prey. If you see them spread out and circling with their dorsal fins angled, they might be foraging for salmon or seals.

Resident Killer Whale, illustration by Uko Gorter

WHEN AND WHERE TO SEE

Look for southern residents in the summer when they return to their core and critical habitat in the central Salish Sea, especially from Whale Trail spots in the San Juan and Gulf Islands. October through February, they return to the central Puget Sounds following winter salmon run, and might be seen at Whale Trail sites from Port Townsend to Port Defiance.

Throughout the year, keep your eyes open for southern residents along the Pacific Coast from Uclulet BC to Monterey CA. They forage on salmon that comes from the Sacramento, Klamath, Snake/Columbia and Fraser Rivers, and the whole of Puget Sound.

Biggs orcas travel patterns are less predictable. They forage along the Pacific Coast from California to Alaska, are increasingly seen throughout the Salish Sea. Less commonly seen from shore, Biggs orcas are found in the Channel Islands, Monterey Bay, the Gulf of the Farallones and near Tofino. Biggs pods are specialized to hunt prey such as grey whales, seals, and sharks.

RANGE

Orcas are one of the most widely distributed cetaceans in the world, and are believed to also be the most widely distributed marine mammal. Orcas live in every ocean, and at both poles.

  • The North Pacific hosts three types of orcas, differentiated by their morphology, behavior, and genetics:  residents, transients and offshores.  These whales often share the same range but are not related to one another and are not believed to intermix.
  • Atlantic orcas are known to live in the waters around Norway, Iceland, Patagonia, southern Argentina, New Zealand and Antarctica. The Antarctic groups also show species differentiation based on the same factors of morphology, diet, behavior and genetics.

BIOLOGY

Their distinctive black and white coloring makes orcas instantly recognizable the world over. The white pattern on the underside of an orca is different between males and females. Other key features are as follows:

  • Dorsal Fins. Orcas have distinctive, triangle-shaped dorsal fins that can grow to be as high as 6 feet on males. Females have shorter, curved dorsal fins while males have taller, straighter fins. The shape of each dorsal fin is unique, and is used to identify individual orcas.
  • Saddle patches. Orcas can also be distinguished from each other by the white marking on their back, just behind the dorsal fin called a “saddle patch.” The pattern of the saddle patch is unique like a human fingerprint.
  • The life span of orcas is very similar to humans. Females live an average of 50 to 80 years, while males live an average of 35 to 60.
  • Reproduction. Females are able to start bearing calves in their early teens, and may bear young into their 50s. Since calves are born throughout the year it is assumed that mating occurs year-round.
  • The gestation period for orcas is 14 months. Calves are roughly 3 feet when they are born, and are often assisted to the surface by other orcas. They nurse for approximately one year.
  • The life expectancy for orca calves is not very good. Approximately 50% of calves die before they reach one year old. For this reason, calves less than a year old are not counted in the numbers of the studied populations.
  • Though their eyesight is very good, orcas are primarily acoustic animals. They use sonar and vocalizations to navigate, hunt, and communicate with each other. Pods make unique and shared calls that can also be used to identify one pod from another.

DIET

Orcas are the top predator of the sea. Their preferred prey differs between ecotypes. For example, resident orcas eat fish, while transient and offshores eat marine mammals. This difference in diet and hunting strategies may have evolved to allow different kinds of orcas to share overlapping ranges, and not compete for the same food.

What orcas eat, and how they catch it, is cultural. Orcas teach their offspring both what to eat and how to hunt.

  • In Patagonia, orcas teach younger orcas how to launch themselves onto beaches to catch unsuspecting seals.
  • In Antarctica, orcas work together to create waves that wash seals off ice floes, and into the mouths of other waiting orcas. Cruise ship passengers on a 2008 voyage watched orcas “training” younger orcas in this method for over two hours.

STATUS

Orcas at Risk! Some cetaceans are now facing an uncertain future because their populations have declined to the point that there are only few of them left in the world. Southern Resident orcas are listed as an endangered species in both the US and Canada.

Over all the world’s oceans, it is believed there are more than 50000 orcas. Looking at all ecotypes of orcas, orcas are the most widespread and one of the most populous of all marine mammals

SOCIAL STRUCTURE AND BEHAVIOR

Orcas are extremely social animals.  They live in tightly bound units called pods. At certain times of the year, multiple pods come together to form superpods, where mating and other social behaviors are often observed.

  • Resident orca pods are matriarchal, organized around the mothers and grandmothers. Generations of extended families stay together their entire lives.

Like other cetaceans, orcas exhibit a wide range of behaviors, like breaching, spyhopping, porpoising, kelping, tail-lobbing and resting.

  • Breaching is when an orca leaps fully out of the water, often making a spectacular splash when it falls back in.
  • Spyhopping is when an orca lifts it head above the surface, and has a look around. An orca’s eyesight is as good as a human’s!
  • When orcas porpoise, they swim rapidly along the surface of the water. In short bursts, orcas are the fastest mammal on earth.
  • Resident orcas often play with kelp as they swim through the giant kelp beds around the Pacific Northwest. This behavior has been observed so often that it’s come to be known as kelping.
  • Orcas slap their tails against the surface of the water, creating a percussive sound that can be heard for miles. This behavior is called tail-lobbing.
  •  Sometimes they also slap their pectoral fins against the water; this is called a pec slap.
  • When orcas rest, they often line up side by side, in a formation known as a resting line. Like other cetaceans, they are conscious breathers and must stay awake to breathe. Though they rest, they never fall fully asleep like humans.

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View our guide on how to watch marine animals from shore.

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