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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.

orca-2

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

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.

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!

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

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

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?

Orcas courting

Orcas courting

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

Two Orcas lifting a baby Orca to the surface, a heart-touching display of caring

Two Orcas lifting a baby Orca to the surface, a heart-touching display of caring

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)

Killer Whale Pod (Hosking-U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Killer Whale Pod (Hosking-U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

A Mystery About the Killer Whale in Alaska

Sounds of the Orca

Communications and sounds of the Killer Whale

Communications and sounds of the Killer Whale

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.

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

Orca dorsel fins

Orca dorsel 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 in Prince William Sound - (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Orca in Prince William Sound - (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

References

  • 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...

The Orca's guests can sign in here, if they would like - The Orca or Killer whale Guestbook

Arturo on January 10, 2015:

I never tire of it ... particularly love it in the off-season when it's less touisrty (although their numbers have been down the past few years). Love to explore outside the Inner Harbour and all the neighborhoods, etc.

tonyleather on December 30, 2013:

Fabulous lens! These creatures are now thought to be as intelligent as - if not actually more so than - Dolphins, and this post is jam-packed with great information. Wonderful!

sprincles2000 on July 17, 2013:

Orcas are my favorite animal and i love how well you described the information about them. :)

Shadrosky on September 05, 2012:

Truly an amazing animal

TriciaLymeMom on September 05, 2012:

Orcas are amazing and beautiful animals. Thanks for the great lens, will be visiting it again.

kevin-collins on September 02, 2012:

Awesome information. The videos are amazing!

boa11kfh on August 26, 2012:

This is great. Orca are my favourite animals, along with other dolphins. They're really intelligent animals and you have highlighted that here. They display amazing social skills and teamwork. Have you seen killer whales vs Great White Shark? The whales won. Other dolphins, particularly bottle-nosed dolphins are really intelligent too. Some can even recognise themselves in a mirror.

Your pictures are really great too. I love the videos. Have you watched them on Frozen Planet?

anonymous on August 21, 2012:

Great lens!

anonymous on August 21, 2012:

Great Pictures!

adragast24 on August 01, 2012:

This lens is beautiful, it should get a purple star! Just a small thing. When you ask the question "What do you think these Orcas were doing?": there should be a poll, a comment box or a debate box, not just a text box (we cannot answer the question).

Kathryn Wallace from Greenbank, WA, USA on June 11, 2012:

I live in orca territory in Washington state, thank you for the thoughtful lens about these endangered creatures.

Allens happy le on May 21, 2012:

Great info on this lens, and I also like the collection of videos you have here. I think you should say clearly that Orcas are dolphins, not merely related to them. It's been my experience that most people get that wrong :)

luckyone924 on November 09, 2011:

great pictures! enjoyed reading!

JoyfulReviewer on November 08, 2011:

Awesome photos and videos. Nicely informative ... thanks!

CreativeArtDesigns on October 29, 2011:

Great pictures of the Orcas in the wild!

BryanLSC on September 10, 2011:

Great lens on my favourite animals! Really enjoyed the lens! Thanks for the great work on orcas. They are just so intelligent, aren't they? They are simply the top predator in the seas, nothing beats them, not even the most feared Great White! Orcas rock!

Lisa Auch from Scotland on August 27, 2011:

I would just love to go on a boat and see these magnificent sea creatures, i have got lost in your animal pages that are so passionately put together Blessed

Jeanette from Australia on August 14, 2011:

I am fascinated by these magnificent creatures. This lens has been blessed and added to my animal alphabet lens.

Shadrosky on August 07, 2011:

Awesome lens! Very nicely researched!

katiecolette on July 12, 2011:

We really enjoyed Killer Whale performances at Sea World - truly amazing animals!

Lisa from Rhode Island on July 04, 2011:

they are so beuatiful

whaleriders6 on April 12, 2011:

I love orcas and try to get out and see them as much as possible, here on San Juan Island. Great info!

jackieb99 on February 26, 2011:

I love Killers Whales! They are so beautiful.

sukkran trichy from Trichy/Tamil Nadu on February 21, 2011:

i enjoyed this lens. especially the videos are superb.

KonaGirl from New York on January 18, 2011:

Being from Hawaii, I am very attuned to marine life and you have done a wonderful job researching and creating this orca lens!

AnnaleeBlysse on January 18, 2011:

So many lovely images showcasing this lovely animal.

anonymous on November 17, 2010:

I totally enjoyed this lens! Great job, thank you for the experience.

squid-janices7 on September 22, 2010:

You have some amazing photos and videos on this lens! We just went whale watching off Vancouver Island and saw a pod of killer whales....got lots of great pictures that I'll have to share on Squidoo some day. They are amazing creatures.

Ann from Yorkshire, England on September 17, 2010:

great lens.

JanieceTobey on September 16, 2010:

Oh, I love whales!! What gorgeous orca photos!

CarrieAnn_Brady on September 12, 2010:

Linda, you have done a great job on this lens. The images and videos are awe inspiring.

anonymous on September 12, 2010:

Linda, you have done a great job on this lens. The images and videos are awe inspiring.

Deb Kingsbury from Flagstaff, Arizona on September 10, 2010:

I once went on a cruise to Alaska with my parents, and we had the pleasure of watching the Orcas breaching nearly every day. It's one thing to see these incredible creatures at an aquarium, but seeing them in the wild is just breathtaking.

Cynthia Sylvestermouse from United States on September 10, 2010:

Orca's are simply beautiful and graceful creatures. Totally Awesome!

callinsky lm on September 09, 2010:

Very cool. Lots of wonderful information. I must have taken you a long time to put it together. Kudos to you.

Sherry Venegas from La Verne, CA on September 09, 2010:

I loved my stay here with the orca. Very well done.

emmaklarkins on September 08, 2010:

Awesome pics! Such beautiful, majestic animals!

eclecticeducati1 on September 08, 2010:

I love Orcas. They are such beautiful creatures. Blessed by an Angel.

VarietyWriter2 on July 16, 2010:

Great lens. Beautiful animals. Blessed by a SquidAngel :)

purplelady on April 10, 2010:

What an awesome lens. I will put it in my featured lenses on my Festival of Whales lens. You have definitely enhanced the beauty of the Orca whale with this lens. 5 Orcas and a featured lens widget.

Demaw on April 09, 2010:

Wonderful lens, great pictures.5*

Vicki Green from Wandering the Pacific Northwest USA on April 03, 2010:

Great lens about this magnificent creature!

Eliza Rayner from Boulder, Colorado on January 28, 2010:

beautiful page, Orcas are amazing. I have added this page to my newest - a few of my favorite things. plus 5 stars

ronpass lm on September 27, 2009:

Fascinating lens - it was great to learn about the killer whales' habits and behavior. Thanks for putting this very informative lens together - very eyecatching.

Nancy Tate Hellams from Pendleton, SC on August 02, 2009:

Love this and it is filled with such great information about the Orca. I am going to share it with our grandson who really enjoyed Shamu on Our Florida Vacation. Lensrolling.

religions7 on January 04, 2009:

Great lens. Great pictures.

piedromolinero on November 05, 2008:

Orcas are such fascinating animals. Thank you for making such a wonderful lens with a lot of information and pictures.

ChristiannaGarrett-Martin on November 04, 2008:

I am amazed how close to shore they get. A wonderful lens with an amazing choice of photographs.

Christianna

ElizabethJeanAl on November 04, 2008:

They're beautiful and so is this lens.

Nice job.

Lizzy

WhitU4ever on November 02, 2008:

Wow... these animals are fascinating. I've seen whales out by Catalina Island once. They're beautiful. There's quite a bit of information here... a great lens for anyone interested in learning more about Orcas. Great job on this lens. I can tell you spent a lot of time on it.

aquariann on November 02, 2008:

Fascinating, 5 star lens! I especially enjoyed reading the section about their common behavior. Awesome photographs, too.

The Homeopath on November 02, 2008:

I took a whale watching excursion in the San Juans a few years ago. They are so amazing in the wild, just beyond words.

dahlia369 on November 02, 2008:

Go orcas! :)

dreamsgate lm on November 01, 2008:

Just lovely. I learned a lot about orcas, thank you.

Robyco on November 01, 2008:

Great looking lens, stunning photos, would love to have an opportunity to see these in the wild.

cappuccino136 on November 01, 2008:

This is a beautiful lens about a fascinating animal. Great photos and lots of information.

James20 on October 31, 2008:

A well put together lens on this. nice pictures.

Susanna Duffy from Melbourne Australia on October 30, 2008:

Fabulous creatures, fabulous lens. I wish i could give you more than 5*

Marc from Edinburgh on October 30, 2008:

Such a beautiful lens, such beautiful creatures :)

AslanBooks on October 30, 2008:

Very interesting lens...

bobzbazzar on October 30, 2008:

Great Lens I love Reading about Nature

Bob

LucyVet on October 29, 2008:

Wow, amazing lens! I'd love to see an orca in the wild one day - not sure about diving with them though!

YourCover Mama on October 29, 2008:

beautiful creatures, and beautiful lens! you always put sooo much work into your lens! great job :o)

dahlia369 on October 28, 2008:

I'm also fascinated by killer whales - they are amazing creatures... Awesome lens! :)

Cheryl Kohan from England on October 27, 2008:

This is a wonderful lens. I was especially interested because of the report of those seven missing Orcas from Puget Sound. Incredibly sad, isn't it? They are beautiful creatures.

Ruth Coffee from Zionsville, Indiana on October 27, 2008:

Wonderful lens, really enjoyed the video clips!

Music-Resource on October 27, 2008:

Hi Linda: Wonderful Orca lens. Photos go great against the blue background. Lots of interesting info. This lens is sea-worthy! Very artistic. ~Music Resource~

Carol Fisher from Warminster, Wiltshire, UK on October 27, 2008:

Fabulous lens, it's got it all, beautiful pictures and information.

Rich from Surrey, United Kingdom on October 26, 2008:

Beautiful and informative lens. One to return to. 5*s

Hekepei on October 26, 2008:

This is a very beautiful lens. :-)

Linda Hoxie (author) from Idaho on October 26, 2008:

[in reply to lakeerieartists and vbright1-5]

Thank you both so much, I appreciate you! Linda

VBright on October 26, 2008:

I've spent more time on this lens than I ever have any other! Excellent job! The videos didn't even need sound for me to enjoy them!

Paula Atwell from Cleveland, OH on October 26, 2008:

Beautiful lens Linda.