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Details about: Orcas, or Killer Whales
Orca or Killer Whales on CanadianWildlife.comOrcas, or Killer Whales (Same creature), are highly intelligent and very curious mammals. Orcas are the most widely distributed of any marine mammal on Earth, being found in all oceans from cold polar seas to tropical waters. Orcas live in a very organized family unit called a pod that includes several generations. Unusually curious about the visitors in their waters, they may approach boats in order to get a better look at the human visitors. Their acrobatic skills are seen as they spy-hop, tail-slap or breach the water as this juvenile Orca is doing.

Often referred to as Killer Whales, the name "Orca" has been gaining popularity, however both are correctly interchangeable. In the past, Killer Whales have also been called Sea Wolves, Wolves of the Sea and blackfish. These names are closer related to the folklore and tales of the sea that were told by sailors and fishermen.

Orcas belong to the Oceanic Dolphin family. They have a mainly black back, white jaw, chest and sides, a white patch above and behind the eye and a "saddle patch" straddling across the back directly behind the dorsal fin

Orcas are large marine mammals, measuring from 20 - 26 ft (6 - 8 m) long and weighing 13,000 lbs (6,000 kg) with females being slightly smaller. Another major distinction between the sexes is the males’ large dorsal fin that stands straight up and can reach up to 6 1/2 ft (2 m) tall.

Female Orcas live a relatively long life, reach an average ago of 50 years, while the males are not so lucky. The average lifespan of a male Orca is only 29 years. There have been exceptional cases where 90 year old females and 70 year old males have been recorded. Lifespan of captive Orcas however, those performing in tanks and aquariums, however is much shorter with an average lifespan of only 20 years.

Although there has been extensive studying, research and published information relating to the Killer Whales of the Pacific Northwest, there is a much larger population existing in the Antarctic waters. Globally, all Orcas have a diverse diet, however different geographic population groups have evolved to specialize in hunting particular prey.

In the Pacific Ocean and Pacific Northwest there are three distinct groups of Orcas, the transient, resident and offshore groups. “Resident Orcas” are primarily fish eaters, with diets consisting mainly of fish and squid. They are known to visit and return to the same areas regularly. “Transient Orcas” prey primarily on marine mammals and do not eat fish. They travel extensively along the coast and live in smaller family groups than residents. “Offshore Orcas” travel far offshore into open ocean waters and are believed to eat mainly schooling fish. DNA studies have shown them to be genetically removed from the other two types of Orcas but little is known of them.

Additionally, there are another three different Killer Whale types documented in the Antarctic waters. It is these variance characteristics along with differences in coloration, social structure, interactive behaviors and other factors are leading researchers to believe that there are several different and unique genetic strains of orcas and, with further study, the Orcas may be broken down into additional distinctive groups.

Killer Whales are regarded as apex predators with no natural enemies. With good eye sight, both above and below the water, excellent hearing, extensive use of echolocation (like sonar) to locate prey and the ability to swim at speeds in excess of 35 mph (56 km/h), they are at the top of the aquatic food chain
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The Orca does however have one devastating enemy - environmental pollution. Orcas appear to be very closely “in tune” with their environment and react very drastically to major upsets and changes. Following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, the AT1 pod of Orcas, estimated at one time to include 346 orcas, was decimated until there were only 7 family members left. It is believed that this group is unable to reproduce and will become extinct.

Orcas are the most widely dispersed marine mammal. They are found in every ocean of the world, including the warm waters of the Mediterranean and the Arabian Sea, however they do prefer cooler temperatures and polar waters. Orcas are migratory animals; however, their migratory patterns are poorly understood. While the same Resident Orcas may be spotted every year in the summer in the Northwest Pacific, it is not clearly understood where they migrate and venture to during the winter.

Females give birth to a calf on average once every 5 years, with winter being the most common birthing season. Calves weigh about 400 lbs (180 kg) at birth and measure 7 ft (2 m) long. Orcas mothers’ milk contains almost 50% fat, is pink in color and will feed the calf for the next 12 months. Following birth, the Orca calf will begin consuming almost 100 lbs (45 kg) of this nutrient packed milk. For the next 12 months, they feed from their mother and will be fully weaned after 24 months.

Orcas are highly social, with tight groups comprised of family members with a female as the head of the family. Only higher primates (such as humans), elephants and orcas live in such complex social structures. It is noted that North Pacific resident Orcas have a particularly complex family structure, with all the animals in the family living with their mother for their entire lives. The family structure is based on matrilines with the mother being the matriarch of the group. On average, up to 4 matrilines (families) will group together and form a pod. Pods may split apart into their own family groups for weeks or months but eventually come together again.

Orcas are very intelligent and curious animals. They use many techniques to learn of their surroundings including spy-hopping. Spy-hopping involves sticking their heads straight above the water in order to see and look around the above water surroundings. Techniques learned and problems solved by orcas are passed on and "taught" to other members of the pod. They also appear to be fond of entertaining us by breaching, that is, jumping completely out of the water and crashing back down created a huge splash!

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