Did you know?
Killer Whale Facts
Killer whales, or orcas, are found in all the world's oceans, but nowhere are they more accessible for viewing and study than in British Columbia's coastal waters. More than 500 killer whales roam B.C.'s rugged coastline, usually traveling in close-knit family units.
Not your lineage?
We once thought that one killer whale was just like another. But scientists have learned that it's not so black and white. In fact, every killer whale in B.C. lives in one of three separate groups. Except for a slight difference in the shape of their dorsal fins, the whales in each group look a lot alike. Once you start watching them carefully, however, you'll see that they act very different.
What is an lineage?
Scientisits call the three killer whale groups - or lineages - residents, transients and offshores. The three lineages eat different types of food, hang out in different kinds of groups, have different home territories and even have their own languages.
What do they eat?
Resident killer whales are chatty fish eaters. They are salmon specialists and have a very high preference for Chinook salmon.
Transient killer whales are stealthy hunters who stalk other marine mammals including seals, sea lions, dolphins and even other whales.
Offshore killer whales are also very chatty but we do not know much about them. Offshores are believed to feed on large fish such as halibut and maybe even shark. Killer whales eat about 45-135 kg of food a day.
How do they catch food?
Resident killer whales use echolocation to find their prey, which is a beam of clicks they rapidly emit from the front of their head, called the melon. The clicks that are produced, hit objects and bounce back to the whale alerting the whale to where fish are.
Transient killer whales have to rely on a different hunting technique because their prey have ears and can hear any sounds the whales might produce. Transients use passive listening to locate their prey which means they listen to the sounds produced by animals around them rather than calling out themselves.
Photo: John Ford
Individual killer whales are identified by their saddle
patch and nicks in their dorsal fin
Photo: John Ford
How do you tell the difference between males and females?
An adult male can be distinguished from an adult female by the size of the dorsal fin. Adult males have a much taller dorsal fin, longer pectoral flippers and downward curved tail flukes, all of which females do not have. Juvenile whales are more difficult to tell apart because the male charateristics do not start to grow or "sprout" unit the whales starts to mature at 13-15 years of age. At any age, variation in the white pigmentation around the gential area can be used to distinguish males and females.
Photo: John Ford
Male killer whalse have tall dorsal fins that can reach a height of 6 ft (2m)
How are individual whales identified?
Black and white photographs of killer whales' dorsal fin and grey saddle patch are used to identify and study individual whales. Pigmentation detail in the saddle patch is unquie for each whale, along with nicks in the dorsal fin and scratches or scars on the whale. This is called photo identification.
Staying with mom!
A mother resident killer whale is the leader of her family and her children usually stay with her all their lives. When daughters have children of their own, those kids stay with the group too. A group made up of a mother, her children, her grandchildren and maybe even her great-grandchildren, is called a matriline.
How do we know who the father is?
Killer whales do not mate with members of their own pod and calves are raised by the mother and her matriline. This prevents inbreeding or mating with another individual who is related to you. Therefore, it is not easy to tell who the father is. Genetic analysis of DNA samples taken from individual whales has made it possible to identify or match who a likely father is.