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

Orca Feeding in San Juan Islands

Orcas, or killer whales, are predators whose feeding habits depend on whether they belong to ‘resident’ or ‘transient’ pods. Resident orcas are whales that prefer to return to the same coastal areas each summer, while transient orcas constantly swim along the coast in search of food and generally are not observed to spend too much time in the same place. Pods determine feeding habits because these tend to be learned from whales within the pod. For instance, while transient whales prefer preying on mammals like dolphins, seals or porpoises, resident whales tend to feed more on fish like salmon. For the large part, transient orcas tend to require a greater intake of food because of their higher energy expenditure compared to the resident orcas, which explains their habit of feeding on other mammals — a habit that only killer whales have. On the other hand, resident whales feed on fish; rather than actively pursuing them, these fish tend to swim towards them on their reproductive migration track. Overall, orcas tend to eat around 375 pounds of food per day.

The Socially Learned Nature of Orca Feeding Habits

One of the best examples proving that feeding habits are learned within pods is the behavior of transient orcas when held in captivity. One case proved to be particularly interesting for trainers in an oceanarium: a newly captured transient orca kept refusing to eat the fish that trainers were trying to feed it, to the point that it began to starve. Worried that the orca would starve to death, trainers decided to try to place a captive resident orca in the same tank. Only once the captive resident orca presented the transient orca with fish did it recognize fish as a type of food. Without the assistance of the other orca, it probably would have starved to death.

Orca Feeding and Predatory Behavior

Overall, orcas are considered very intelligent creatures and are some of the top predators in the ocean. While some of the fundamentals of their behavior and social life is understood, much surrounding the social dynamics of orcas is still not known because it takes place underwater. Nevertheless, what we do know is that orcas are very social creatures that appear in groups between 3 and 25 whales. On each dive, resident orcas tend to spend between 3 and 4 minutes below water, while transient orcas are able to spend up to 15 minutes under the surface.

Whale watching is one of the most amazing experiences you can have; on any given expedition with San Juan Kayak Expeditions you can witness orcas breaching, spy-hopping, lobtailing or even sleeping. On the San Juan islands, whale watching season lasts from spring to fall. During this time, it becomes possible to see both resident pods and visiting transient orcas in search of food. If you are interested in finding out more about whale watching and what it entails, feel free to contact San Juan Kayak Expeditions. We would be happy to provide more information about our expeditions, so feel free to get in touch 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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