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The Orca (Orcinus orca) or "Killer Whale" is the largest member of the dolphin family. It is the second-most widely distributed mammal on Earth (after humans) and is found in all the world's oceans. It is a versatile predator, eating fish, turtles, birds, seals, sharks and even other whales. Some orcas are known to be specialists, eating a diet that appears to be exclusively small sharks off New Zealand or salmon off British Columbia, while others choose a wide variety of prey items.
The story in Newfoundland goes that the name "killer whale" goes back to early 20th Century Antarctic explorers — many of whom employed crews and dog teams from Newfoundland and Labrador. A group of sailors were standing on an ice pan when a pod of orcas attempted to tip the pan which almost caused the sailors to slide into the water. The men were able to hang on and later commented that they thought the whales were trying to kill them… hence the name "killer whales". Orcas use this technique of tilting ice pans to capture seals and penguins; and while people today believe that the orcas mistook these early Antarctic explorers for penguins, the name "killer whale" has stuck.
The orca has been a subject for art and curiosity for thousands of years. Pliny the Elder wrote the earliest known scientific description of the species while coastal peoples captured the animal in bone and soapstone carving thousands of years before Pliny.
The orca entered the fossil record about 8 million years ago. Its arrival on earth appears to have coincided with the disappearance of the giant shark Megalodon — the famous cousin of the great white who was 12 m (40 ft) in length or longer; and undoubtedly would have preyed on young dolphins… including orcas… just as sharks do today. Many scientists speculate that the giant sharks gave up their place on the top of the marine food chain to the smarter and swifter orca who likely would not have tolerated predation on their calves by this ancient nemesis. In fact, today many dolphin species lose up to half of their calves to shark predation; and both popular and scientific literature include accounts of orcas killing large predatory sharks.
Orcas are noted for their striking colour pattern. Since they have no real natural enemies, the protective colouration found in most ocean animals has been lost. The killer whale's body is black with white eye patches and underside and there is a white to gray area behind the dorsal fin called the saddle. The dorsal fin may reach a height of 2 m (6 ft) in the adult male. They have about 48 cone-shaped teeth, each about 4 cm (1 1/2 in) long. Killer whales may reach a length of 9 m (30 ft) and weigh up to 7,256 kg (16,000 lbs). The average adult male is 6-7 m (21-23 ft) in length and weighs around 4,535 kg (10,000 lbs). The females are usually about 0.5 m (2 ft) smaller and weigh about 3,628 kg (8,000 lbs). Although their dorsal fin is shorter, so they appear to be less prominent to our human eyes, orca society revolves around breeding females and their young including the larger sons who accompany mom throughout their life. It is believed that the killer whales typically live for 50 years in the wild although at least one wild individual in the Pacific was known to live for 80 years. Males appear to live shorter lives than females.
While orcas are often associated with the Pacific, most animals in captivity have been captured from Atlantic populations near Iceland. As it becomes less acceptable to capture and enclose these large, fast moving, wide ranging whales, marine theme parks have taken to attempting wild captures in more obscure portions of their range such as northern Russia. Observations from captive animals have supplemented our knowledge of orcas. The gestation period of the killer whale is approximately 17 months. The breeding season appears to last all year. The whales have a courtship ritual where family groups come together with large males from one group approach females from the other group. Courtship can be an active affair with animals sometimes seen leaping out of the water together. Orcas will sometimes have scars caused by the teeth of other orcas. Like many other dolphins (and humans and chimps), orcas are also known for "sex play" when not involved with actual mating.
Calves are usually born fluke first as opposed to land animals which are typically born head first. The birth of a dolphin/orca calf occurs rapidly, which is necessary because the young must surface for its first breath very soon after the umbilical cord breaks, in order to avoid suffocation. When the orca is ready to give birth, it sometimes is seen spiralling under the water's surface working with the force of water and gravity to expel the calf. A newborn calf weighs approximately 70 kg (150 lbs) and measures 2 m (6 feet) long. The mother quickly guides the newborn to its first breath of air and swims alongside her calf protecting it from intruders and danger. The mother and other members of the pod are extremely protective of the calf. Nursing begins shortly after birth and continues for about one year. After approximately 2-1/2 months, the nursing periods become shorter and the calf starts receiving solid food from its mother.
This website represents the first systematic attempt to study and catalogue orcas off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, and eastern North America. Our goal is to make this information available to scientists, conservationists and whale enthusiasts around the world. Atlantic Whales accepts donations towards maintaining this website but we are also interested in your supporting our sponsors — and the whales — through your participation in Wildland Tours field studies or trips on local whale watching boats.
We invite everybody to come to Newfoundland and Labrador to enjoy the spectacle associated with one of our planet's richest marine areas. We invite scientists and students to use our images for research and educational purposes. We do ask for acknowledgement (tell people where you got the photos or information) and in many cases we can provide higher resolution images or more detailed data about an orca encounter. We welcome inquiries from other researchers.
For more orca information check out our Wildlife Reports section.