Orcas (killer whales) are the largest member of the dolphin family and can grow to the size of a school bus (10 metres). They have a large dorsal (back) fin. Each whale has a one-of-a-kind white patch around the base of its fin, a white belly, and a white patch behind its eye. They have long bodies, big tails, and a row of cone-shaped teeth in the top and bottom of their mouths.
Range & Habitat
There are three kinds of orca whales in B.C.: the northern and southern residents, who stay around Vancouver Island and the Washington islands; the transients, who swim from California and Mexico up to Alaska; and the offshores, who spend most of their time far from shore and come close to land only on rare occasions. In B.C., this animal lives in the Coast and Mountain and Georgia Depression ecoprovinces.
Diet & Behaviour
Resident orcas eat salmon, octopus, and other cold-blooded sea creatures. Transients eat mostly mammals, including porpoises, seals and sea lions. They have been known to come right up onto the shore to catch a seal or sea lion. Scientists don’t know what offshores eat, but they think it’s a combination of both fish and mammals. Orcas have their own special language; they talk to each other and find food using their squeaks and clicks (called echolocation). Residents, transients, and offshore orcas don’t understand each others’ languages. They are very acrobatic animals that can bring their entire bodies out of the water when they jump.
Lifecycle & Threats
Orcas live in family groups called pods which are made up of six to 20 whales. Females give birth when they are about 15 years old and they only have a few babies in their lifetime (which lasts 30 to 70 years). Orcas face quite a few threats, most of which are human-related. They are sensitive to noise and pollution from boats, and they have one of the world’s highest levels of pollution in their bodies from eating poisoned fish and swimming near oil spills and sewage pipes. They are also captured for aquariums and marine centres.
COSEWIC: The southern resident population is endangered, the northern resident and the transient populations are threatened.
CDC: The resident and transient populations are Red, the offshore population is Blue.
Vancouver Aquarium Cetacean Research Program
Photo: Matthew Allen