Cornforth Images

Orca (Killer Whales)

The Orca or Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) is the largest species of the oceanic dolphin family. It is found in all the world’s oceans, from the frigid Arctic and Antarctic regions to warm, tropical seas. Orca are versatile and opportunistic predators. Some populations feed mostly on fish, and other populations hunt marine mammals, including sea lions, seals, and even large whales. There are up to five distinct orca types, some of which may be separate races, subspecies or even species (Resident, Transient, and Offshore). Orcas are distinctively marked, with a black back, white chest and sides, and a white patch above and behind the eye. Males typically range from 19-26ft (6-8m) and weigh in excess of 6 tons. Females are smaller, generally ranging from 16-23ft (5-7m) and weighing about 4-5 tons. The orca’s large size and strength make them among the fastest marine mammals, often reaching speeds in excess of 35 mph. Unlike most dolphins, the pectoral fin of an orca is large and roundedÑmore of a paddle than other dolphin species.

Mothers calve, with a single offspring, about once every five years. All resident Orca pod members participate in the care of the young. Orca are highly concentrated in the northeast Pacific Basin, where Canada curves into Alaska, off the coast of Iceland and off the coast of northern Norway. They are regularly sighted in Antarctic waters right up to the ice-pack and are believed to venture under the pack and survive breathing in air pockets like the beluga does. Local estimates include 70,000-80,000 in the Antarctic, 8,000 in the tropical Pacific, up to 2,000 off Japan, 1,500 off the cooler northeast Pacific and 1,500 off Norway. Adding very rough estimates for unsurveyed areas, the total population could be around 100,000. Each summer, the same resident orcas appear off the coasts ofBritish Columbia and Washington. After decades of research, it is still unknown where these animals go for the rest of the year.

Orcas were targeted in commercial whaling for the middle part of the twentieth century once stocks of larger species had been depleted. Commercial hunting of orcas came to an abrupt halt in 1981 with the introduction of a moratorium on all whaling. The orca’s intelligence, trainability, striking appearance, playfulness in captivity and sheer size have made it a popular exhibit at aquariums and aquatic theme parks. The practice of keeping orcas in captivity is controversial, and organisations such as the World Society for the Protection of Animals and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society campaign against their captivity.

Many of the major aquariums have orca displays, but viewing and photographing them in the wild is a much harder and rewarding experience. The San Juan Islands offer the best opportunity to see wild orcas, but they can also be seen from northern Vancouver Island and in Alaska.

Click on one of the following links to see images of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins, Dall’s Porpoise, Spinner Dolphins, or return to the main dolphins gallery.

Terms: Killer Whale photos, Killer Whale pack, Orcas, Killer Whale stock photos, Orca blows, Orca jumping, pictures of killer whales, Orca photos