Killer Whale or Orca
Scientific Name: Orcinus orca
The Killer Whale is the most widespread and one of the most recognized mammals
in the world. It is found in all the oceans from the Arctic to Antarctic, and
tropical seas and open oceans. However, it is most often encountered in
nearshore biologically rich areas and it occasionally enters estuaries and small
bays. The Killer Whale has distinctive black and white markings with a prominent
dorsal fin. The dorsal fin is from 1.0 to 1.8 meters tall in adult males and
less than 0.7 meters in adult females. The head is rounded with a slight beak.
Males can reach as long as 9.75 meters and females reach 8.53 meters.
Killer Whales usually travel in small groups known as pods. The average pod size
for resident whales (see definition below) is about 12 individuals but up to 59
whales has been recorded. Transient pods range from one to four individuals.
Single individuals, usually males, are occasionally encountered. The social
group is matrilineal consisting of whales from two to three generations.
Membership in the pod is stable although individuals will switch pods on
occasion. Non-breeding females and males care and teach hunting methods to older
calves of females with young calves.
More Killer Whale
Breaching is the term that
refers to the leaping out of the water to fall on the side with a big splash.
Spyhopping is the vertical emergence of the whales head and part of its
torso from the water. Tail lobbing occurs when a whale turns on to its
belly and slaps the water surface with the top of its tail flukes while swimming
upside down. Flipper slapping occurs when a whale turns on to its side
and slaps the surface water with its fin. Killer Whales can dive for up to 17
minutes to a depth of at least 260 meters.
is often done in cooperative groups. Whales gather in narrow passages where
salmon returning to spawning rivers are numerous such as in Johnstone Strait on
northern Vancouver Island, and Haro Strait near Victoria, British Columbia.
Transients hunt marine mammals by stealth often catching seals off guard in the
water or by drowning sea lions and small whales.
Biology: In North
America’s Pacific Northwest, Killer Whales have been categorized as residents
and transients, although these are inaccurate descriptions of site use and their
movements. Characteristics which differ between the two types of whales include
the shape of the dorsal fin, pigmentation of the saddle patch, mitochondrial and
nuclear DNA, diet, travel patters, respiration patterns, vocalizations, group
size seasonal occurrence and geographic range. Residents eat mostly fish and
transients specialize on a marine mammal diet. Resident and transient whales do
intermingle socially, but there is some indication that the DNA of the two
groups is sufficiently distinct to identify them as separate groups.
Pacific Northwest, resident Killer Whales are often referred to as belonging to
southern, northern and offshore groups. The southern resident community is found
generally around southern Vancouver Island and in Puget Sound. The northern
resident community is found from northern Vancouver Island to southeast Alaska.
The offshore community appears to inhabit the continental shelf break along the
entire northwest coast, although information is scant.
occurs between October and March in the northeastern Pacific. Females first give
birth at about 15 years of age, gestation is about 17 months long and young
calves are born about every 5 to 6 years. Calves remain dependent on their
mothers for about two years and Killer Whales can live for at least 35 years in
Status: The southern
resident population of Killer Whales were listed as endangered and the
northern residents and transients were listed as threatened in November
2001 by the Committee on the Status of Wildlife in Canada.
have been made to measure the impact of whale watching among whales near in
Johnstone Strait and southern Vancouver Island and in Washington with mixed
results. The validity of reported behavioural shifts in response to approaching
boats is questioned by some researchers. Nonetheless, southern whales appear to
spend less time resting.
For more information: Baird, R.W.
2001. Status of Killer Whales, Orcinus orca in Canada. Canadian
Field-Naturalist 115: 676-701; Wilson, D.E. and S. Ruff (eds.). 1999. The
Smithsonian Book of North American mammals. University of British Columbia
Killer Whale Pictures
Otter Photos by Tom Middleton
Bear Photos by Tom Middleton
Whale Photos by Tom Middleton
Whale Photos by Tom Middleton
Killer Whale links
Orca, Killer Whale: ZoomWhales.com
Killer Whales (Orcinus orca)
WhaleTimes: Fishin' for
killer whale adoption program
Status of killer whales in Canada
Vancouver Aquarium - AquaFacts: British Columbia's Killer Whales
Killer Whale or
Oregon Institute of Marine
Shannon Point Marine
Hatfield Marine Science Center
Blakely Island Field
More Whale Photos and Information
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