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Orca or Killer Whale (Orcinus orca)

Orca whales, also known as killer whales, were named from Orcas, meaning “Greek God of the Underworld.” Despite having a fierce name, Orcas are most well known for their intelligence and curiosity. Orcas are the apex predator in the Puget Sound; their only known predators are humans.

Killer whales are the largest members of the dolphin family. An adult male can grow to be 30 feet long, weigh over 12000lbs, and have a dorsal fin six feet tall. Females can grow to a length of 25 feet and weight up to 9000lbs, with a dorsal fin about three feet tall. At birth, killer whales calves can weigh 400lbs and be up to 8 feet long. On average, male Orcas can live to be 50-60 years old. Female killer whales can live to be over 100 years old. One of the oldest known killer whales in the Puget Sound is estimated to be born in 1911!

Killer whales have a distinct black body with white underside, and distinguishing white patches near the eye and below the dorsal fin, also known as a saddle patch. These white marking are as unique as a human fingerprint. This is how researchers and naturalists alike identify each individual orca. Killer whale display many exciting behaviors that we can easily see. Orcas exhibit behaviors such as breaching, spyhoping, display pectoral fin or fluke slaps, and lobtail.

The Puget Sound is home to two genetically distinct genotypes of killer whales; Resident fish eating Orcas and Transient mammal-eating Orcas. Transient Orcas travel in small pods of three to five and have a very broad travel range from the California coast to Alaska. Primarily, transients hunt small marine mammals such as harbor seals or porpoise, but can form larger pods and hunt gray or humpback whales. We have great luck encountering transient killer whales in the waters surrounding San Juan Island during the late fall and early spring months.

The most well-known and studied groups of killer whales are the Southern Resident Killer Whale Community. This fish-eating killer whale community consists of three pods; J, K, and L pods. Each pod is a complex family group, with one matriarch leading the whole community. Orcas have strong social bonds within each family-oriented pod. Members share many responsibilities such as raising calves, babysitting, hunting, and foraging. Unlike many other killer whale communities, Resident offspring will stay with its birth pod its entire life, thus reinforcing strong family-bonds.

Currently, the Southern Resident Community has about 85 whales. J, K, and L pods have a smaller and more defined travel range, which is why we encounter them consistently during the summer months in the waters surrounding San Juan Island. Each pods’ movements are determined by availability of salmon, and is why we see the Southern Resident Community less in the winter months as the salmon swim towards the Frazier River to spawn.