Written by Chad Echakowitz
Orcas are extremely badass. The Killer Whale, which is not actually a whale, but rather an oceanic dolphin, is the last remaining member of its genus, Orcinus, which translates into ‘of the kingdom of the dead’. If you are not of the age group that fell in love with these wonderful creatures through the cinematic masterpiece of Free Willy, these facts will surely blow your mind.
Orcas live in groups, or pods, under a matrilineal social order. Out of all animal social groups, Orca pods are the most stable of any animal species. Calves often stay with their mothers for most of their lives. When the males are old enough, they leave their pods to mate with females from other pods. Every member of a pod, both male and female, care for the young, teaching it the different hunting techniques of the pod. Even after female Orcas pass their age of fertility, they live on in the pod, undergoing menopause.
Orcas can be found in every ocean throughout the world. Orca pods act, hunt, communicate and even look, differently dependent on where they are located. They are so diverse as a species that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has classified their conservation status as “Data Deficient” because it is believed that two or more different types of Orcas are in fact different species. Orcas can be found both in the Arctic, Antarctic, Indian, and Pacific oceans, and have been known to travel up fresh water rivers.
Because of there complete domination over every part of the seas, Orcas have developed different hunting techniques as well as different vocal behaviors. This implies that Orcas actually have different accents depending on the area in which their pod lives. Marine Biologists believe that Orcas show the best example of animal culture because they pass on these techniques and behaviors to their young through teaching.
Much like their dolphin cousins, Orcas are incredibly smart. They have learnt to imitate their prey as part of some hunting techniques and have often been found to problem-solve. Fisherman Craig Matkin, was fishing in Orca territory. He tried to distract the Orca pod by using two boats. While the Orcas were distracted by the one boat, he’d haul fish into the other boat. The Orcas would then swim over to that boat and Craig would instruct the boat the Orcas just left to haul fish when the Orcas were out of range. In less than an hour the Orcas realized what was happening and the pod separated into two, one group going to the one ship and the other group going to the other. The Orcas were so thrilled when the figured it out, the started to play with the boats, breaching right by them.
The Killer Whale is an apt name for this formidable oceanic assassin. They are built for the kill, with a speed of 56 km/h and weighing an average of 6 tons, Orcas are essentially smart battering rams. While the Orca's front teeth are inclined slightly forward and outward in order to ensure that it can withstand any powerful, jerking movements from its prey, the middle and back teeth hold its prey in place.
Apart from using its formidable body, Orcas have developed different hunting techniques dependent on where they live and what prey they can find. Orcas which usually hunt fish carousal feed. This is a method of hunting where the pod will force fish into a tight ball by releasing bursts of bubbles or showing their white underbellies. Once in a tight ball, the Orca will then slap the fish with their tales, killing up to 15 fish at a time.
In New Zealand, the Orcas usually prey on sharks and rays using tonic immobility, a hunting method which turns the prey upside down. Tonic immobility provides two benefits as a hunting technique. First, it allows the Orca to hold its prey without incurring injury, and secondly, by keeping their prey still, the prey cannot breath and will die. Perhaps due to the shared competition in hunting ground, or perhaps due to the pure brutality and kick-assery of Orcas, there have been sightings of Orcas actually killing Great White Sharks.
Others beach themselves when their prey is found on steep or shallow shores. Beaching is not in the Orca’s nature to do so because of the risk that such an act involves, so it takes many years of practice to perfect the technique. Orcas with young calves will often catch their prey and teach the calves how to beach themselves in order to catch the already weakened prey.
Wave-hunting is yet another form of hunting in the Orca’s arsenal. Orcas will lift their heads out of the water (known as spy-hopping) in order to get a better view of their prey on land. The pod will then, as a single unit, rush at the landmass, creating waves in order to knock their prey off the land and into the water.
These creatures are like no other. They care deeply about their family, but ruthlessly hunt their prey. They have the brawn, but it is nothing compared to their brain. They are all around us, in every ocean we look, yet our knowledge of the Orca species is incredibly limited. They evoke so much respect and awe. We need to stop thinking of them as monstrous killers because they are so much more than that. They are smart and beautiful and kind. We are lucky to share their planet with them.