Captain’s Blog

Little-Known Facts About Orcas

January 14, 2021

Originally published: May 4, 2013

These beautiful black-and-white creatures have secrets and we know some interesting, little-known facts about orcas. Remember these facts about orcas on your next Victoria whale watching trip!

Orcas are actually dolphins

Orcas, often referred to as “killer whales” (Orcinus orca) are a toothed whale and are the largest member of the dolphin family (from the Delphinidae family). Their size is what led to humans calling them whales!

Dolphins are carnivores that eat fish, squids and small crustaceans and some orcas are among the few species that also hunt marine mammals and birds. Like the transient killer whales we see in the Salish Sea.

Orcas are very fast

The orcas’ large size and strength make them among the fastest marine mammals. They are able to reach speeds as fast as 30 knots (34mph or 57 kph)!

Adult orcas are almost as big as a bus

It’s hard to see from the water’s surface, but adult orcas are, on average, about as long as a small school bus (19 to 26 feet long) and they can weigh up to six tons. Next time you’re on a bus, imagine yourself taking an orca ride!

Orcas live in every ocean of the world

From the Arabian Sea to the Gulf of Mexico, from the coastal waters of Japan to the Atlantic Ocean, and from the Arctic waters to Antarctica, orcas can be found in every ocean in the world. Their extremely wide range and unpredictable movements make it difficult to know the exact world population. It is thought to be more than 50,000 individuals.

Orcas are smart hunters

If you’ve ever heard about the way wolves hunt – in packs, coordinating their attack – then you have an idea of how orcas hunt too. It can be hard to watch orcas hunt, but there is no doubt they are skilled hunters.

They’ve been known to beach themselves (slide out of the water onto the shore) to scare sea lions into the water where other killer whales are waiting to feed.

Another technique is to deliberately cause a large wave in ice floes to throw their prey in the water, where they are easier to catch. They teach these techniques to their young in the process.

Orcas have a form of culture

Culture, the idea of passing knowledge and language within a group from generation to generation, is actually done within orca pods. Scientists have proven that each pod (family) has its own unique dialect and that learned behaviours are passed from one pod generation to the other – a unique feature that is currently known to exist with one other species; humans.

Female orcas have a similar lifespan to humans

Statistics show the average life expectancy of orcas in the wild is estimated at about 30 years for males and 50 years for females. However, there was one local resident female orca that is estimated to be 100+ years old! Her name was Granny and she was the matriarch of J-Pod, before her passing in late 2016. Females normally reproduce between the ages of 15 and 40.

Killer Whales sleep with one eye open

Little is known about how orcas sleep, however, we know that dolphins and other cetaceans sleep by shutting down one half of the brain while the other stays awake. Unlike humans, orcas need to remember to breathe, even when they are sleeping! So, one half of the brain rests while the other half stays alert to control breathing, consequently keeping one eye open!

Offshore orcas eat sharks!

There is an ecotype of orcas known as “offshore orcas” that can be seen 15 km offshore in the northeast Pacific Ocean. These whales have similar physiology to the Southern Resident Killer Whales, however, scientists have found they eat sharks!

Now that you’ve filled your brain with facts about orcas, it’s time to make some new memories on the water. Come experience the wild with Orca Spirit and catch a glimpse of these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat. Book your whale watching tour today!

three orcas breathing through blowholes

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