Here are some of the most commonly asked questions and answers about paddling with our local orca pods and their natural history:
WHAT DO ORCAS EAT?
There are three pods of orca whales that call the San Juan Islands home during the spring and summer months. These whales return year after year from their Pacific Ocean wintering grounds to feed on migrating salmon from May to October. Their favorite species of salmon is Chinook in summer, which consists of 70% of our southern resident’s diet and chum salmon in the fall. Our resident pods do not eat marine mammals, though all other orca populations in the world do. An adult whale will eat from 200 to 250 pounds of salmon per day.
HOW OLD DO ORCAS GET?
Male orcas can live into their forties, while females can reach into their sixties.
WHY ARE THEY CALLED “KILLER WHALES?”
Our local orcas do not feed on marine mammals(sea lions, seals, porpoise, dolphins, other whales, etc.), but all other orcas do. Orcas are at the top of the ocean food chain(apex predator). The sight of these whales killing and eating a sea lion, seal or gray whale calf, for example, is not a pretty sight, and has earned them the, perhaps, undeserved nickname of “Killer Whale.”
IS IT SAFE TO KAYAK WITH ORCA WHALES?
We have been sea kayaking with “killer whales” for thirty-one years, and have never had and “incident” with a whale, nor do we know of any case of a whale endangering a kayaker. Orcas are intelligent and gentle mammals, live in social groups(pods) and use vocalizations, echolocation and eyesight to remain aware of their surroundings. They don’t want to bump into you just as much as you don’t want them to!
HOW BIG ARE ORCA CALVES?
Orca females can produce offspring once every five years. Gestation time is 17 months. Calves are born under water at any time of year, head-first or tail-first, are about eight feet long and weigh about four hundred pounds. Immediately upon birth, the mother or other pod member will often push the baby to the surface to take it’s first breath! Calves nurse within hours of birth and for up to four months, and, by ingesting mothers rich milk(28 – 48% fat), gain weight rapidly. Calves nurse for five to ten seconds at a time, several times per hour and twenty-four hours per day. They begin to eat fish at about four months of age. They are often observed “piggy-backing” or “riding the slip stream” of a parent or aunt to save energy(see photo left). Due to pollution, excess boat traffic, illness and changes in ocean temperature, the attrition rate of first-year calves is about 50%.
HOW BIG ARE ORCA ADULTS?
Females can reach twenty-five feet long and five tons(10,000 pounds) in weight, while males might reach thirty feet and ten tons(20,000 pounds).
ARE ORCAS WHALES OR DOLPHINS?
Orcas are the largest of all dolphins! They have conical-shaped teeth just like dolphins., and are classified under the delphinidae family. Orcas look much more like dolphins then they do any of the larger species of whales.
WHAT IS THE SOCIAL STRUCTURE OF AN ORCA POD?
Killer whales live in groups called pods. The size of a pod usually varies from less than 5 to about 30 individuals. A pod is a cohesive long-term social unit. A pod usually consists of males, females, and calves of varying ages. Several smaller pods may join occasionally to form larger groups of 50 or more individuals called herds or aggregations. There is an occasional exchange of members between pods, especially during breeding season. Killer whales in a pod appear to establish strong social bonds. Behavioral studies suggest that certain animals prefer associating with one another. As with most species, there is a social hierarchy within a group of killer whales. This social hierarchy is female-dominant. Orcas live in matriarchial family groups led by elder matriarchs. Male and female offspring remain with their maternal family for life. The animals may rank themselves and establish dominance by slapping their tails against the water, head butting, jaw snapping, and various other vigorous postures and gestures.
HOW CLOSE DO YOUR KAYAKS GET TO THE WHALES?
Federal law requires that all vessels, including sea kayaks, stay at least 200 yards away from whales. We do our very bet to adhere to this important regulation. Because we are slow moving craft, we sometimes find ourselves closer than we would wish and unable to retreat to the required distance.
Also, for example, if we are backed into a kelp bed for a snack break, and orcas come by, we often have them cruise within several feet of our bows. Whale watching encounters have ranged from one foot to one mile away! We have been sea kayaking with whales for thirty-one years. Please join us for year #32! For amazing past stories of kayaking with orca whale close encounters visit Tim’s Blog!
HOW FAST CAN ORCAS SWIM?
Orca whales can reach speeds up to 35 mph making it easy to catch even the fastest salmon. They will travel up to 100 miles per day in their search for food.
HOW SMART ARE “KILLER WHALES?”
Very smart. An orca’s brain weighs between 12 and 15 pounds – four times the size of a human brain. They communicate through a mix of clicks and squeals and can coordinate movements during hunts. They can be curious and playful.