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The Orca or Killer Whale

Linda is an amateur artist and photographer who loves to travel with her husband of 37 years.


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

Two Orcas near the San Juan Islands

Two Orcas near the San Juan Islands

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.

Orca Behaviors

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

Orcas Breeching

Orcas Breeching

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!

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Video of Orcas Breaching in Resurrection Bay, AK

Orca Spy Hopping

Orca spy hopping

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

Orca Tail Slapping

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

Where can you find Killer Whales, beside's Sea World?

Where can you find Killer Whales, beside's Sea World?

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 does a Killer Whale eat? - Food for Orca

What does a Killer Whale eat? - Food for Orca

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

A superpod gathering of Orcas: two transient pods and a resident pod