San Juan Island's Original Sea Kayak Outfitters & Guides Since 1980

Orca Fast Facts in San Juan Islands

Orcas, or ‘killer whales’, are some of the most fascinating — yet misunderstood — marine animals. For starters, orcas are not whales — they are dolphins. Commonly called ‘killer whales’, orcas actually belong to the dolphin family, though these two species are very closely related. Orcas are very widespread and can be found in oceans all over the world, which makes them an integral part of the marine life of many different countries.

Some Fast Facts About Orcas

If you are interested in finding out more about these amazing creatures, take a look at the following facts:

1. Orcas are dolphins, not whales

In the past, orcas were mistakenly called ‘asesina ballenas’ — or ‘whale killer’’ — by sailors. These sailors believed that orcas were whales because they had seen them preying on larger types of whale species. Over the years, this name stuck and even became incorporated into the latin name of orcas, i.e. orcinus orca. This roughly translates into a ‘whale in the kingdom of the dead’ — a name evidently inspired by the predatory behavior of the orca.

2. Orcas have a specific way of sleeping

Orcas do not sleep like humans and most other types of mammals. Rather than shutting both of their eyes and falling into an unconscious state, orcas have to stay semi-conscious to keep breathing. This is the case because orcas do not have a breathing reflex — they have to actively decide to breathe each time they do. As a result, rather than staying completely awake, orcas allow one side of the brain to fall asleep while the other stays awake, actively breathing and staying aware of potential threats to its surroundings. As a result, sleeping orcas swim slowly close to the surface, while one eye is shut and the other remains open.

3. The diet and language of orcas differ

Orcas are social animals that generally tend to stick to their ‘pods’ — or families — which socialize them into a specific diet and language. Generally speaking, an orca eats a diet consisting of fish, seals, dolphins, whales, sharks, octopods, and even seabirds. However, while certain pods tend to feed on a diet consisting mainly of fish, others prefer to prey on seals or dolphins. The reason behind this development is that orcas started preying on different animals so that the different orca pods wouldn’t have to compete for the same food. This knowledge was passed down through the generations and, as a result, orcas with different dietary habits now look different and even have different DNA structures.

In a similar way that they learn their dietary preferences within their pods, orcas learn a specific communication pattern. As a result, certain vocalizations and sounds are unique to the pod, meaning that it has its own distinctive accent, and potentially cannot be understood by other pods.

4. They are highly intelligent

Orcas are highly intelligent creatures that exhibit very complex social behavior. For instance, they are highly adaptable, have advanced communication skills and are even able to coordinate hunting tactics with fellow pod members. In addition to these skills, orcas are also very agile swimmers and are capable of covering extensive distances throughout the day as they hunt and socialize with their pod members.

5. Orcas are endangered

For various reasons, orcas face a variety of threats as a species. For one, the accumulation of toxic waste and pollution in the oceans has made orcas unhealthy and compromised their ability to reproduce at the rate that they were previously able to. Also, orcas are highly vulnerable to capture and even though this is by now an outdated practice in the US, certain countries still permit the capture of orcas for the purpose of being sold into captivity. Overall, the population of orcas throughout the world has experienced a drastic decline.

Orca Fast Facts — Find Out More About These Sea Mammals

If you are interested in finding out more about orcas, or ways that you can help them stay safe and free, contact us today for more information. At San Juan Kayak Expeditions, we do not only appreciate the beauty of these majestic animals, we also try to help them as best as we can. For more information, or if you are interested in scheduling a whale watching expedition, contact us today at 360-378-4436!


All photos in our website have been contributed by past guests. Thanks to all who have shared their experience! And special thanks to guest Philip Robinson for his fun pics.

Contact Info

San Juan Kayak Expeditions
Tim and Sally Thomsen, Owners/Operators since 1980
PO Box 2041
275 A St, Friday Harbor, WA 98250, USA
Open 7 days a week for questions & reservations.

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