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The White Sharks and Whales Expedition

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Five Facts About Orcas

Orcas, also known as killer whales, are one of the most recognizable and popular species of whales and dolphins. Orcas are so fascinating and we wanted to share five of our favorite facts about them!

Orca - 24 ft. (7.3m)

1. Orcas are black and white to help them camouflage in the ocean.  

Orcas are instantly recognizable due to their iconic black and white color pattern. Orcas are mostly black on the top, with a small gray area behind the dorsal fin (called a saddle patch), and mostly white on the bottom. This may be to both act as camouflage and distort their body shape. Since orcas are black, when viewed from above, they blend in with the dark ocean floor. Likewise, the white coloring on the underside of their body blends in with light ocean surface, making it more difficult to see them when looking from below.  

The striking black and white coloring has another effect - the bold contrast between the two colors where they meet on either side of an orca's body makes the orca seem deceptively smaller, giving them an advantage when hunting – and may help them track their hunting partners, allowing them to coordinate their moves 

Pod of orcas in Far East Russia
A group of orcas off the coast of Kamchatka, Far East Russia. Photo © FEROP

2. Orcas are found in all of the worlds oceans. 

Orcas are the most widely distributed marine mammal species on the planet!  They are more commonly found in the colder waters of Antarctica, the North Atlantic and North Pacific, however, they are also found in tropical, subtropical, and offshore waters.  

Because of their different environments, orcas in different parts of the world have adapted to local conditions. Distinct types of orcas are known as ecotypes and they differ in size, appearance, prey preferences, foraging techniques, dialects, behaviors, and social groups. Their ranges often overlap, but they are also genetically distinct – they don’t appear to interbreed, and rarely interact with other ecotypes. 

Dive deeper into orca ecotypes.

BBC Earth
BBC Earth

3. Antarctic orcas have learned how to hunt seals using waves to wash them off of ice. 

Pack Ice orcas of the Southern Hemisphere prefer to eat seals, but have to deal with the inconvenience of seals hiding on ice floes. Luckily, these intelligent creatures have figured out a way to overcome this obstacleWorking together, orcas swim towards an ice floe, using their tails and bodies to create a wave that washes the seal into the water or breaks the ice apartSometimes it takes multiple approaches to dislodge the seal, and the orcas may need to use additional methods, like breaking the floe apart with their heads. 

Watch a video of orcas using this hunting technique. 

Content warning - predation events may be difficult to watch.

Hysazu Photography
Hysazu Photography

4. Communication is key for orcas. 

Orca families are usually "within earshot" of each other as they rely on talking to communicate with their family members. Orcas are capable of producing a variety of sounds, the most common of which are calls, clicks, and whistles. Calls can be composed of squeals, squeaks, and screams, and are often used by researchers to identify certain pods, clans, and even ecotypes. 

Clicks are used when orcas are searching for food. Like other toothed whales and dolphins, orcas rely on echolocation to find their food underwater. Of course, the many different ecotypes of orcas have developed different sounds and ways of using them.  

Hysazu Photography

5. The fastest recorded speed of an orca is 34 miles per hour. 

Orcas are MUCH faster swimmers than we are! Humans have been recorded swimming at speeds of 3-5 miles per hour, with some Olympians reportedly reaching 6 miles per hour. As top predators in the ocean who feed on a variety of prey, including other marine mammals, speed is important for orcas! 

Whale Taxonomy chart

BONUS: Orcas can be categorized both as whales AND dolphins.

Orcas are the largest species in the dolphin family, which is one of the five families classified as toothed whales, or Odontocetes.

Because of their size and because they are also called 'killer whales', they’re sometimes called whales. Other people call them dolphins. Both are right, and it all depends how specific someone is in their classification.

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