Did you know that the orca is one of the few species of organisms on planet earth that experiences menopause? That is not the only special mammalian characteristics they share with humans. They are also the genius of the oceans. Orcas are especially famous and loved for their high level of intelligence, which is often compared to our closest relatives – Apes and Chimps. The animal is also extremely playful, teachable, and curious. Scientifically known as “Orcinus orca”, the more common name “Killer Whale” is often used by English-speaking scientists.
Size, weight, and life expectancy of an orca
There is a noticeable difference in the size of male and female orcas. The female orca is usually smaller than the male and could grow up to be 23 feet (or 7 meters) long. The male, on the other hand, could grow to be much longer, measuring up to 33 feet (about 10 meters) in length! That is almost as long as a standard school bus. An orca could weigh up to a stupendous 5,500kg (or 12,000 lbs)! That sounds crazy. In order to grow to such incredible lengths and amass such weight, scores of years are required while living much longer in the wild than in captivity.
In captivity, a male orca lives to be just about 17 years old while the female lives to be around 29. In the wild, however, they can grow to be 50 to 80 years old. In fact, some scientists believe that some could grow to be 100 years old. A typical example is an orca tagged “J2” or fondly referred to as “Granny.” First photographed in 1976 by Dr. Balcomb in the Salish Sea, the project was already 40 years old before she was declared dead in the latter part of the year 2016.
While the age of Granny is still a dispute as some whale researchers believe she was over a hundred years old, some even categorically say she was 105 years old. However, according to a National Geographic report of a recent biopsy conducted, other researchers peg her age at between 60 and early 80s. The bottom line is that the lifespan of orcas is quite long.
Orcas exists almost worldwide. They can be found in the freezing waters of both, the Arctic and Antarctica, and also in the warm tropical waters close to the equator. However, they prefer cold waters. They have been around for the past 11 million years, which is no surprise that they exist in myths and legends of various coastal ethnic groups around the world. In fact, there are reports of orcas working in mutually beneficial fishing ventures with local fishermen in the past.
National Geographic records at least two of such mutual relations as having existed. One is reports from the Bering Expedition, which cites Kamchatka (currently Eastern Russia); another is Twofold Bay in Australia. In both and all other recorded cases, orcas would often herd and even sometimes injure large fishes or whales, including humpback whales, while rustling the prey within an area where local fishermen could easily catch the animals. Eden Killer Whale Museum, Australia, documents that there were reportedly three pods of orcas numbering up to 50 led by an orca named “Old Tom” which assisted fishermen in their fishing expenditures as far back as the 1840s.
The subspecies of orcas
The diet of an orca is divergent but strictly based on the group/pod (ecotype) such an orca belongs to. Orcas feed on a wide range of animals, including salmon, octopi, rays, squids, seals, sea lions, sea birds, walruses, penguins, turtles, otters, and large whales like humpback whales. Through the work of the Canadian researcher Michael Bigg, scientists identify two distinct subgroups of orcas – the resident southern orcas and transient orcas. While all orcas love to swim long distances and dive deep, the resident orcas are usually less migratory and are picky eaters feeding only on certain fishes. They are also less aggressive.
The transient orcas, on the other hand, live off a variety of mammals like seals, sea lions, penguins, etc. They have fewer pod members, which could be as few as 5, and are more migratory, traveling longer distances. When their paths cross with the resident orcas, they tend to avoid them. The more aggressive transient orca is often referred to as “Killer Whale”. Their uncanny hunting strategies have been described as being very similar to wolves. They are known to often toy with their prey, sometimes while teaching their young how to hunt and sometimes simply for sport. Their playful nature, 4 inches (or 10 cm) long teeth, incredible speed, and exceptional intelligence make them a dangerous predator.
If you thought the great white shark is the king of the seas, think again! That title deservedly belongs to the orca, which is the true apex predator of our oceans. Possessive of both brains and brawn, they are dangerous, hunting in pods like packs of wolves. As a result, they have no natural predators except, of course, humans. As to whether they are endangered, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the orca as “data deficient” due to the fact that there isn’t enough information and the possibility that there could be other subspecies that are not yet known. However, the southern resident orca has been categorized as an endangered species by countries such as Canada and the USA.
Are orcas dangerous?
Orcas pose no threat to humans in the wild. The fact that they are called “Killer Whales” does not mean that they are human hunting monsters. There is no doubt that they are a dangerous species; they are bigger than humans in multiple proportions, they have long teeth, and are highly skilled ferocious hunters. There are valid reports of orcas having caused the death of humans, but all of such deaths were inflicted by orcas in captivity. A notable example is the death of Dawn Brancheau, a Florida Sea World trainer whose death was said to have been caused by the orca Tilikum.
Researchers say this was a product of the negative toll that the boredom and stress of captivity had on the orca. Whether born in captivity or in the wild, all orcas have the innate desire to swim long distances. On average, orcas swim about 65 km (40 miles) and diving 100 to 500ft (30 – 150 meters) deep several times a day, every single day. A marine park does not offer this required freedom. While orcas in the wild have no record of human fatality as they deliberately choose not to attack humans, the deaths caused so far by those in aquariums are a cautionary lesson to be careful around these giants.
Orcas are highly intelligent animals with which we share several unique features; they are the genius of the ocean, they are the apex predator in the water, they go through menopause, and they have sophisticated cultures passed down across generations. With such comparably similar traits that are rare to find in other species, hopefully, the hunting will stop so that they can thrive for the next millions of years to come. Given the orcas’ gigantic mass, they could easily eat humans but choose not to for several possible reasons.
One of such reasons could be that they stick strictly to the menu they were introduced to since birth, and humans wouldn’t be a sustainable food source since we don’t live in the water. So, why add us to the menu? A more popular opinion is that they consider us intelligent species and have come to realize that we play a big role regarding their survival. So, they play nice and consider us allies.