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Captain’s Blog

Killer Whale Facts You Already Know, and What You Wish You Didn’t Know

September 15, 2016

Updated on: March 10th, 2022

When you reflect on the world of orca whales, it’s easy to get sentimental. There’s a lot we know about these wonderful animals, but there’s a lot we wish we didn’t know.

The history of orcas on British Columbia’s west coast, indeed, all over the world, hasn’t always been pretty.

So why talk about it? Because the only way to avoid the mistakes of the future is to remember those of the past.

First, let’s take a look at the good news, the positive facts we all love.

Killer Whale Facts You Already Know

1. Killer Whales are Built on Community

There’s no better example of community than the resident orcas of J-Pod. From Samish and her grandmother, Granny, and her children Hy’Shqa, Suttles, and Se Yi-Chn, it’s easy to watch what we’ve known for a long time: orca whales care for and protect their family at all costs. They raise their children with great care and stay close to their mothers, sometimes for an entire lifetime.

2. Orca Whales are Revered Symbols of Power

From early recorded encounters between killer whales and the Coast Salish people of British Columbia, it’s evident that orcas have represented powerful symbols of respect for nature, the ocean, and the wildlife living in BC. Southern Vancouver Island has been inhabited for 11,000 years by people who respect and revere the natural habitat of these animals. Dubbed the Lords of the Ocean, the orcas of the pacific northwest have long served as a strong reminder of humanity’s spot in the animal kingdom’s pecking order.

3. Marine Mammals are a Source of Wonder

Put yourself in the shoes of a child seeing an orca whale up close for the first time. For many children, not to mention grown adults, this encounter triggers a special spot in our minds. There’s an entire mysterious world that exists beneath the surface of the waves, one that’s filled with wonder and intrigue. Walking upright and breathing air with ease isn’t the only way to live.

4. Orcas Are Extremely Intelligent

Orcas possess the second-largest brain of any animal on the planet! Second only to the sperm whale. The brain of an orca can weigh up to 15 pounds, and the cortex is highly wrinkled and folded, meaning their brains can process information very quickly.

Orcas also possess a highly developed paralimbic system and amygdala. The paralimbic system is related to spatial memory and navigation, and the amygdala is associated with emotional learning and the development of long-term memories.

Perhaps most incredibly, is the Orcas insular cortex. It is linked to emotions like compassion, empathy, perception, and self-awareness. The Insular cortex is highly developed in Orcas, leading researchers to believe that their capacity for feeling emotions runs deep.

5. Orca Whales Unique Colouration Has A Purpose

Orcas are easily recognizable by their unique colouration. Each one has a striking pattern of black and white. The dorsal (top) part of the animal is black, while the underside of the whale is white. Each orca also has a white patch behind each eye, and a pale white to gray saddle patch behind the dorsal fin. This type of colouration where the upper side of an animal is dark and the underside is light is known as countershading. The dark back of a Killer Whale can make an orca harder to spot for an animal above, and the white underside makes them blend in with the light emanating from the surface of the ocean.

The intelligence and majesty of a killer whale are evident at first glance. The problem is that humanity has been seeking that glance by force for far too long, which leads us to facts we wish we didn’t know…

What You Wish You Didn’t Know

1. Orca Whales Don’t Thrive in Captivity

Stay with me for a minute. This is a bit of a tricky heading. These days we’re fully aware orcas are wild animals that would prefer to live their lives in the wild open ocean. For the past few decades we probably knew it as well, but that hasn’t stopped us, humanity, from treating them like a domesticated species.

It’s unfortunate, to say the absolute least, that we had to learn the hard way that orca whales don’t respond well to captivity.

Think of how much easier things would be if we were ignorant to the facts – easier for us, not them. These creatures are born in the wild, they feed in the wild, and they’ve thrived in the wild for far longer than any of us have been here. It would certainly be a lot easier to justify their treatment at our hands if we didn’t realize that captivity isn’t ideal. From captivity to whaling to general ignorance, the wild nature of orca whales was ignored for too long.

2. Orcas Were Once Viewed As Bloodthirsty Beasts

It’s hard to imagine that one of the most beloved and charismatic megafaunas on our planet was once viewed as bloodthirsty beasts by Europeans. They believed that the animals would attack and kill man in an instant if they had the opportunity, as they had been seen hunting other whales and even sharks. The name “killer whale” is derived from the term “whale killer” for this reason. Whalers and fishermen used to shoot Orcas when they saw them, and people used to say that they knew when Orcas were coming through the straits because they could hear gunshots.

Nowadays, Killer Whales are one of the most beloved animals and captivating animals on our planet. They are renowned for their intelligence, sense of community, and individual cultures. Our understanding of Orcas has increased over the years, but there is still so much to learn about these majestic creatures.

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