Cetacean Society International

Working for whales, dolphins and porpoises worldwide

CSI Photo Gallery

Orca (Killer Whale)

(Orcinus orca)

This is some of "J" pod, an extended family of orcas. The matriarch leader is surrounded for life by her daughters and their children, and her sons as well. They are part of a "clan" of local orcas, all of whom share common cultural, genetic and behavioral traits. Each pod's calls are distinct dialects. These "resident" orcas prefer to eat fish, particularly salmon.
This is J7 or Sucia, a female orca in J Pod, one of the "resident" pods in Puget Sound, Washington. Her daughter, Princess Angeline, was born in 1972. Scientists identify the orcas by the pattern on their "saddle patch", plus marks and scars. Some can also be distinguished by their sounds. They all have distinct personalities.
Two of the famous J-pod, Everett and his baby sister, Ewok. Once whales can be reliably identified in the wild we learn some wonderful details of their lives. Scientists need words like culture, dialect and ceremony to describe the rich social and cognitive behaviors of wild orcas.
Ewok, or J20, may live 80 years in the wild. But today she can't find enough salmon because of human fishing. Being the top predator also has a price; human pollution is absorbed by small organisms, in turn eaten by bigger and bigger creatures until the orca absorbs all the concentrated toxins from all the smaller creatures in the chain. This causes immune suppression and lowers reproduction.
Ruffels, J1, may be the oldest male orca in the this "resident" orca population. From time to time all the orcas get together for what scientists call the "ceremony". Among much socializing it's thought that orcas breed during these meetings. These orcas are victims of human PCB's and other pollutants, and too many are dying as a result.
These orcas are dead. New ones have been caught to take their place, or have been born in captivity. Wild female orcas may live 80 years, and the mean is 50.2 years. A male's mean life expectancy is 29.2 years. Captive orcas live much shorter lives, but more importantly, what is their life like spent in a tank with strangers, if not alone, rather than roaming free with their wild family?
Winston was exported from Britain when the laws made it too expensive to keep captive cetaceans there. The laws said that the tanks had to be big enough to be humane. Winston spent most of his life in what we would call a closet. For the show schedule he jumped like this or did other tricks whether or not he wanted to.
Would you like to touch an orca? People paid to feed them tiny fish, and without thinking about it, learned the subtle lesson that humans should dominate these creatures. How exciting is this for these orcas? They are bored. There is nowhere they can go to escape human hands in this small and shallow tank.
What does this show us except that whales should be dominated by humans. Is this good for the whale or the business? Would anyone try this with a wild orca? Some trainers have been hurt, even killed, during shows when they rode orcas. There is no evidence that captive orcas like being ridden, only that they can tolerate abuse...do they wonder why we act like this?
Orcas hunt in cooperative groups, using cultural strategies passed down through generations. One advantage of the bold white and black patterns may be to allow orcas to visually orient on each other in the dark waters, especially when they are all maneuvering very quickly to herd or catch prey.
An orca's skull is very different from ours. The top surface is shaped to help the orca create sounds used in hunting and communicating through the "melon", the tissue above the front skull which gives many odontocete species a domed forehead. The brain is in back, rotated in comparison to ours, with the eyes about where the jaw articulates. The orca hears return echoes through the lower jaw, and the inner ears are tucked under in back.