Orca – The Killer Whale

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Orcinus orca is the Latin name of what we simply call the Orca. This is the biggest member of the Delphinidae dolphin family when it comes to weight and height. This is a predator and it feeds on fishes, birds, seals and even other similar to its kind, as long as it can get a bite. The humans are the only mammal that has a better distribution throughout the planet than the Orca’s mammal family. Members of the family are also the Melon-headed, Pigmy, False-killer and Pilot whales. All of these dolphins are spread out in the waters of all earthly seas and oceans. From all of these species, though, the Orca is the top of the food chain, feeding on even Blue and Gray whales.

The Curious Name

Even though the Orca are generally called “killer whale”, they are actually a dolphin and not a whale. This is not an error, though, but rather a bow to its history and the fact that the great Pliny has named it a whale. Currently, though, every scientist has agreed on the theory that the Orca is a dolphin and is not perilous for the humans at all. In fact, except for one single instance when a young boy in Alaska was chased after by a Killer Whale (the animal didn’t even try to bite or grab), no other officially recognised and proven attacks by Orcas have been confirmed. The only thing near such an action is when the mammals are being captured and used as an attraction in marine parks where they sometimes blast out at their handlers and trainers.

Orca

The Unique Looks

The looks of the Orca is one of the most distinctive looks in existence. Resembling the tuxedo suit, their skin is dyed in contrasting black and white where the body is mainly black, but the chest, the sides and a medium-sized patch behind its eyes, which are pure white.  Except for the unique colouring, the Orca has a lot of other specific visual features. One of them is the naturally formed large dorsal fin, which also has a gray spot on behind. Their pectoral fin, however, is much different when compared with the other dolphins. Unlike the other representatives of the kind, the Orca has a rounded pectoral fin, which resembles more a paddle than anything else.  These parts of it body can be as big as 1.8m alone in the males and about twice smaller in the females. The males are also less rounded than the female’s. The scars and unique curves on these fins are the “fingerprints” that scientists use to distinguish one Orca from another.

Orca killer whale

Technically speaking, the size of the common Orca is versatile, but also very impressive when it comes to dimensions. The average male can reach up to 9.5m in length and as much as 6 tons in weight. With the females, of course, the numbers sound differently, very differently – 8.5m in length and c.a. 5 tons in weight. Leaving grown-ups aside, the young ones can weigh as much as 180kg and reach up to 2.4m.Orca and Human

Another unique feature in the Orca is specific for the large males. They are distinct and cannot be mistaken with any other sea creature. This is exceptionally interesting when taking into account that all females, as well as the male and female cubs, can be taken for many other beings, especially when in temperate waters.

 

Habitat and Social Habits

After the humans, it is the Orca that is the most distributed mammal in the world. They are unusually spread out around all oceans and many seas, some of which have never been inhabited by any other cetacean species but the Orca, such as the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian Sea. This is in fact quite unusual for these sea creatures, though, considering their preferences to the colder, even polar temperatures.

The one basin that is most loved by these animals is the Pacific Ocean and especially the part where the Canadian zone curves into the Alaskan, near Iceland and in the northern boarders of Norway. Antarctica, of course, is also a favourite of the species, but because of the icing of the waters, they cannot go near the continent during the true winter and have to swim there only during the ‘hotter’ days. Some scientists believe that the Orca uses the same method when going through this zone as the Beluga – using the air pockets for aid when needed.

Orca in Alaska

Even though they prefer cooler waters, the Orca is, as mentioned, found all over the World Ocean. This includes even tropical and off-shore regions. Due to the special physical features and evolutional changes, these animals are able to survive and not only – they can freely enjoy their life in any kind of ambiance. This is the true world of the Orca – they are as many as 80 thousand in the Antarctic Ocean, about 8 thousand in the Pacific Ocean and many more reaching up to a suggested estimate of 100 000 Orcas in the entire planet.

Another incredible feature of this species is its lifespan. The life expectancy of an Orca, exclusively valid for the females of the kind, is as much as 90 years. The socium of the Orca species is very unique. They form a matriarchate where an Orca-mother is the main point around which her family, children and their children group. This can sometimes mean that up to four or five generations swim together as one, gathered around the eldest mother. This phenomenon is also known as a matriline and is quite differently regarded and consisting of different partitions for the mammal-eating and the non-mammal-eating of the species.

Orca Killer Whale

These same matrilines are divided into clans which are on the other level, divided into pods. Clans are inclusive of all pods with similar dialects and family relations. The link between the pods is often and almost every time genealogical, this does not make it impossible to have members of different families occupy the same geographical region, though. Resident Orcas travel in a clan formation. When two clans meet, they often form lines and greet each other in kind of a face-off. After this procedure has passed, they come into one. The different pods consist of an average of 18 closely related members of the matriline. The biggest recorded pod consists of 49 separate Orcas. These separate groups are sometimes able to go alone on foraging or hunting for weeks before joining back together. This is much different than the behaviour within the matriline group where dividing it is practically impossible. Pods are also speaking the same Orcan dialect and language.

Orca and Penguins

The scientists divide the Orcas also in communities, but this is not something that is regarded to as a group by the animals themselves. This classification is science-specific and not very proven as it relates to clans which sometimes mingle with other clans, but it is neither a regular practice with the Orcas nor something that can be put into statistics.

The non-resident mammal-eating matrilines are smaller and more divided as they travel more and need to execute much more different duties. On top, hunting mammals is much different as the sea-mammals are always large and also faster than the other animal types.

 

Energetic and an Excellent Hunter

The daily routine of the average Orca, no matter hunting-type or if it’s resident or transient, is consisting primarily of movements – breaching is seen a lot as they come out to breathe while sky jumping is also a common practice which they use to show off. Sometimes sky jumping is involved in the males’ fights for dominance. However, superiority is most of the times decided by an erection, also done in order to attract female attention.

While they are great social animals, the Orca have many different ways of communicating as the echolocation is the one they use the most, but are also able to use movements and specific sounds as a way of talk. This said, the Orca are very smart hunters and always think of their location and the probable catch before actually performing any rash movements of sounds.

Orca Hunting

Smart as they are, the Orca often emit just one click when hunting for a prey that is with a good underwater hearing, so that they won’t be noticed before reaching the aim and not to scare off the food. Knowing which type of fish or mammals live in the separate regions is also a symbol of their excellent minds and intellect.

As a whole, even though they do take some time to rest and relax, these aquatic mammals are exceptionally playful and active; their energy is in huge quantities and this is visible even in the captive individuals, which don’t have as much space at their disposal, but are still extremely energetic.

Orca Hunter

Science on the Orca

Scientists have many ways of studying the Orca, but they are nonetheless limited by the diversity of chances that must be taken, especially when science is not about taking chances in the first place.

Understanding or individualising the separate pods because of their dialect is logical, but this same feature cannot be used as a certain mark of pod-relatedness. It is also impossible to be used to distinguish one individual form another as each member of a pod speaks the same language as the others and often even as their clan. Hence, language and dialect are two things that cannot be used by science to study the Orca as individuals. The call types are many, but are also shared by the different groups and sometimes even rub-off to the transient pods that come in contact with the resident ones in regions they pass through. This is valid mainly for the underwater calls, but also shared on the superficial level.

Apart of the callings, science is also very limited when it comes to studying transient Orca as a whole. The most information related to these mammals is coming from studies on the captive individuals and the residents of a specific region. This nonetheless means that many thousands of Orca might actually act differently and/or understand the same actions in a variety of ways.

Orca Sciense

Even if studying captivated Orca, it is possible to take decades to come out with a definite piece of information as the cubs are born every 5 years and a mother has only one each litter. This means that with five Orca examples, every five years there will be only five new individuals. To follow-up on their habits and the way these same cubs evolve with the years, to find a certain line of age-related behaviour or behavioural habits, different periods in their lifespan that classify as a rule would take hundreds of years.

On top of these difficulties, statistics on the life-expectancy and chances of surviving after the age of six months is very unhelpful for science as well. Nearly half of the newborns don’t survive for more than half-a-year. With the standard limit of sexual activeness of the cows being 40 years and including the fact that each mother can breed and reproduce once every four years the average number of children for a mother is five.

Orcas

While females can in fact reach to 80 or 90 years of age, the average life expectancy is much lower. On top of this, it only reaches about 20 years of age with Orca individuals bred and grown in captivity. This also limits the chances of scientists to study the entire path and life cycle of the mammal. In captivity the fin of the Orca becomes smaller and other functions and features, key elements of survival when in the wild, decrease in size and become less able to be used in case they are needed.

Orcas

These same changes and issues are the reason for many polemics on the subject of Orca captivity and their suffering while being studied. The biggest recent conflict in existence is related to SeaWorld and their arguments with the Born Free Foundation. It is all about Corky II who the foundation wants to be returned to its birth-pod where it will be not only free but also able to live in the place where it belongs.

With all the difference between an Orca’s life and habits when bred in captivity and the ones from the wild, it is not certain that any ‘trained’ individual will be able to survive in the open. In captivity, it is not only the life expectancy of the Orca that is different, but also their entire body develops differently mostly due to the laidback situation they are inserted into and the fact that these species need to hunt, fight and battle for dominance and even for the female attention when in the wild.

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