Orca Whale Quick Facts

orca spyhop

  • The largest of all dolphins (the Delphidae family), the orca is also known as killer whale, blackfish and grampus.
  • At birth an orca can weigh up to 395 lbs.
  • The adult weight can range from 2.6 tons to 9 tons.
  • Orcas can swim up to 34 mph (55 km/h).
  • A female orca’s milk contains about 48% fat for several months after her calf is born.  During first several months of its life, the calf will often consume 10% of its body weight per day in order to develop a thick layer of insulating fat, or “blubber”, on its body.
  • One orca was known to have traveled 110 miles up the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington State in search of salmon.
  • Orca whales are also known as “Wolves of the Sea” due to their highly coordinated hunting strategies.
  • The name “Killer Whale” originated from sailors who witnessed Transient pods of orcas attacking larger whales and other marine mammals.  Contrary to popular myth, however, wild orcas do not have a taste for humans.
  • Orcas can swim at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, and often log 75-90 miles of travel each day while following salmon or other prey.  When whale watching off the shores of San Juan Island, keep in mind that the pods can move by quickly!
  • Some orcas exhibit playful or inquisitive behavior such as “spyhopping” (rising partway out of the water to look around), “breaching” (leaping out of the water), and “lobtailing” (repeatedly slapping the water with their tails).
  • Most orca vocalizations are carried for miles underwater.  Orcas use sonar, a form of echolocation, to “speak” and “see” in a deep, cold underwater environment where vision may be a limited.
  • Some Southern Resident orca pods travel as far south as Monterey, California during the winter months.  They may also venture as far north as southeast Alaska.
  • Female dorsal fins are typically shorter and smaller than male dorsal fins.   Some male orca dorsal fins have been measured at 6 feet in length.
  • At birth, an orca calf is approximately 7 feet long and 400 pounds.
  • Female orcas generally live 60-80 years, while males have a shorter life span of 30-60 years.  Some females have been documented and studied since the 1920’s, making them over 90 years old today!
  • Orcas can swim in shallow water, and have been known to intentionally swim up estuaries, steep beaches, or onto icebergs to capture prey.
  • Whale enthusiasts can adopt a Southern Resident orca from the Whale Museum (www.whalemuseum.org) to support education, orca conservation, and whale research efforts around the San Juan Islands and surrounding waters.
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