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Killer whales aka Orcas

Updated on October 17, 2014
Orca jumping out of the water.
Orca jumping out of the water. | Source

Killer Whales, also known as Orca's, are beautiful and large ocean dwelling creatures and are very interesting to read about! In this article I will be discussing the size of these creatures, their habitat, diet and hunting, and behavior. I have always had a fascination with Orcas and a personal dream of mine is to one day be able to swim with them.

Cute picture of a mom and baby Orca.
Cute picture of a mom and baby Orca. | Source

Did you know?

The fins of the male and female are different. While both are triangular in shape, making them easy to spot, the female fins have a slight curve to them while the males are straight. Male's fins can reach up to 6 feet high, that's about the size of an adult human.

Size, age and life cycle

Killer Whales can grow up to 30 feet long and weigh up to 17,000 pounds. They can also reach ages of up to 80 years for females and up to 60 for males but the oldest known orca on record was recorded to be a 103 year old female and the oldest known male was 59 years old. Females in the wild average up to the age of 50 years while wild males usually only live up to about 29 years of age. Sadly, captive Orca's lifespans are shorter then that of those in the wild, captive Orca's usually only live up to around 25 years however some have been known to live into their 40's.

Females and males reach their sexual maturity at around the age of 15, however females stop breeding at the age of 40. Males will not typically reproduce until the age of 21. To prevent inbreeding within the family pod, males will mate with females from other family pods. They mate about once every 5 years and females normally only have one calf at a time and will breed at just about any time of the year. Breeding is more prominent during the Winter months though. Mothers will start to wean their calves at about 12 months old and will go completely off their mothers milk by the age of 2 years old.

Two orca's nuzzling in the water. How cute is this?
Two orca's nuzzling in the water. How cute is this? | Source

Habitat and population

Orcas live in the Oceans all around the world, and most seas, mostly in the cooler waters and coastal areas. They are mostly found around the northeast Atlantic around the Norwegian coast, in the north Pacific along the Aleutian Islands, the Gulf of Alaska and in the Southern Ocean off much of the coast of Antarctica.

Migration patterns are sadly unknown. In the summer months the same individuals appear off the coasts of British Columbia and Washington. However where they go and what they do for the rest of the year is unknown to scientists and researchers. Occasionally killer whales have been spotted in freshwater areas such as the Columbia River in the United States, Horikawa River in Japan and even the Fraser River in Canada.

Population:

While the total estimated population is uncertain, there is said to be a minimum of 50,000 Killer Whales worldwide.

Local estimates include roughly 25,000 in the Antarctic, 8,500 in the tropical Pacific, 2,250–2,700 off the cooler northeast Pacific and 500–1,500 off Norway. ~ Source


Orca playing with it's food.
Orca playing with it's food. | Source

Diet and Hunting

Killer Whales will hunt in packs like wolves and will sometimes even play with their prey. This is one way they hunt in packs to find smaller prey; They breach the surface to look for their victim (seal) sleeping on an ice floe. Two of the whales then work together to tip the ice floe to one side causing the seal to slid off towards the opposite edge where the third whale is waiting. The seal then falls from the ice and into the mouth of the third whale and the other two quickly swim over and help tear the seal to shreds and feed.

Another way they hunt together to kill larger prey is this; a group of Orcas will surround a blue whale calf and lunge at it. They tear off chunks of flesh as they lunge and will swim around it to prevent it from surfacing for air. This is a way they can drown it and then feed off of it by tearing off large chunks of meat.

Killer whales will also 'chase' seals onto the beach to catch them then take them out into the water and toss them in the air sometimes back and fourth between whales to play with their food.

Their diet may consists of various fish, cephalopods, mammals, sea birds and sea turtles. Being apex predators means they have no natural enemies in the wild, and their for will eat just about anything in site. Different populations will sometimes feed only on specific prey. Some populations who specialize in only mammals won't even recognize fish as prey. However, differences in markings and hunting styles leads some researchers to believe these aren't just different populations but could be different species of Killer whales.

Family Pod
Family Pod | Source

Behavior and family pods

Killer whales live in family units called pods. These pods can have anywhere from 5-40 family members. Using echolocation to navigate the oceans they also use it to hunt and communicate. They use a series of clicks, whistles, and squawks to communicate and tell other group members where to go and also helps them locate prey. Like humans from other areas around the world, orcas from different pods have different dialects, they use a combination of sounds that are slightly different from other family pods.

Killer whales have a very active behavior, their day to day activities consist of foraging, traveling, resting and socializing. They also are active at playing, being social and performing courtship by spyhopping, breaching and tail slapping the surface of the water.

Like humans killer whales live in complex societies. They have a pecking order and live in family pods where the babies never leave their mothers and live with them for their entire lives. Only the males will leave their pods for mating purposes but will return to their own family pod. With such complex and intelligent social behaviors some researchers and scientists wonder just how humane it is to keep these creatures in captivity.

As many as four generations of whales can live together, this is because the females can reach up to 90 years old. Males do not take care of their own children but rather the children within their own pod. So they care for the offspring of their sisters, aunts and mother as do all other family members.

Family Pod of Orcas
Family Pod of Orcas | Source

Intelligence

Killer whales have the second largest brain of any marine mammal, the first being that of a sperm whale with the largest brain of any animal. Killer whales can be trained in captivity and are quick learners. They cam mimic and imitate others and have also been known to teach skills to their own family members. The way they communicate is also a sign of their intelligence, as they have different sounds and dialects with each family pod.

People who have worked closely with these whales will tell you about their curiosity, playfulness and ability to solve problems. Some have even learned how to steal fish from longlines and have learned techniques to overcome the obstacles designed to stop them.

Playfulness is another good way to show off their intelligence.

In other anecdotes, researchers describe incidents in which wild killer whales playfully tease humans by repeatedly moving objects the humans are trying to reach, or suddenly start to toss around a chunk of ice after a human throws a snowball. ~Source


Killer Whale splashing around in the water

Captivity

These whales die young in captivity and some think it's inhumane to keep them in small tanks and not letting them live free in the wild. From 1976 to 1997, Orcas had been taking from the ocean from different family pods and placed in captivity. 55 where taken from the wild Iceland, 19 from Japan and 3 from Argentina. These numbers are not including those whales that died during capture. By 1999 about 40% of the captive animals on display where captive born. Being in captivity causes a multitude of problems for these poor creatures such as dorsal collapse seen in 90% of captive males and a shorter lifespan. Several animal activist groups say this is an inhumane way to treat such large and intelligent animals and campaign against them performing circus acts and being in such a small environment. Many people believe it is also very stressful for these animals and that is one of the factors leading to their shortened lifespan.

I believe they shouldn't be in captivity, that they should be free and in the wild to live like they naturally should and be with their family pods and hunt like normal wild animals. I don't think it's right to train them to do tricks for our pleasure while they suffer from stress and physical deformities.

Quick Question

Do you think it's right to have these beautiful creatures in captivity?

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