Killer WhalesThe Largest Members of the Dolphin Family
Killer Whale - Orcinus orca
Although seldom seen, it is possible to see Orcas in the waters off the coast of Baja California. Usually found in pods, these animals hunt cooperatively like wolves or lions. The waters of Gulf of California contain some of the Killer Whales prey; this includes Sea Lions, fish, Sea Turtles, and even baby whales! These animals are actually not whales at all; they belong to the dolphin family, but received their name from stories told by 19th century sailors. Originally termed, “whale killers,” they were described working together to attack and overtake juvenile whales, overtime they became known more commonly as “killer whales.” Although these animals prey on other mammals, there is no recorded attack on record of a human by a Killer Whale in the wild.
The Killer Whale is the largest member of dolphin family, with males weighing in around 8 tons. Male Orcas can grow up to 23 feet long while a female’s maximum length is 21 feet. These animals are also the most widely distributed cetacean species in the world, but are most numerous in Arctic waters. Their coloration pattern makes them easy to distinguish from other whales and dolphins, as their entire back is black while there entire belly is white. They also have variable white and grey patches, and are sometimes used to identify individuals.
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Identifying characteristics of the Killer Whale:
- Black/White pigmentation with a white spot above the eye.
- Very large dorsal fins, with the dorsal of males reaching almost 6 feet.
- Largest of all dolphin species, with some males growing up to 23 feet.
- Travel in pods of 3-25 individuals, unlike most whales.
It is estimated worldwide that there are an estimated 80,000 – 90,000 Orcas; they are not yet regarded as an endangered species. These mammals live somewhere between 30 – 50 years with females living longer than males. They are also the fastest swimming of marine mammals and can travel as fast as 30mph. Such a rare and exciting treat to see these highly intelligent creatures in their natural habitat, up close and personal!
Living mainly in the ocean, these animals have been found in fresh water rivers looking for prey, sometimes over 300 miles from sea! As apex predators, these animals are at the top of the food chain for every ecosystem to which they belong. This can be attributed mainly to highly social behavior along with some of the most intricate group hunting techniques in the animal kingdom. These include, working together using their tails to move small icebergs inhabited by seals. This action washes the seal off of the ice into the waiting jaws of another Orca. They have also been documented working in pods to force separation between mother and calf gray whales, then using their body weight; they will take turns lying on top of the calf to actually drown the animal. Often seen on the coast of Argentina actually beaching themselves for a time in areas with high concentrations of seals, in order to grab one with their teeth and pull them back into the water.
Mostly transient animals, Killer Whales are difficult to study in the wild, and most information regarding their reproductive habits comes from Orcas in captivity. Breeding usually occurs during summer months, and after a 14 gestation period calves are typically born during fall of the following year. Males and females reach sexual maturity at different ages with females becoming mature around 8 and males around 12 years old. These animals produce approximately 4 to 6 offspring in their life and have a calf every 6 to 10 years. Calves nurse for one year while the mother will teach them to hunt and be a social member in the pod, and they will remain with this pod, usually for a lifetime.
Like all cetaceans, Orcas rely on underwater sound heavily for navigation, hunting and communicating with one another. Orcas use discrete calls and whistles when communicating with other members of the pod. Also, each pod has its own discrete dialect, which is shown to be taught and passed down to further generations of the same pod. When water conditions are not so great, causing the Killer Whale’s vision to be limited, they emitting clicks to see the world around them; this is a natural form of sonar!