10 top questions about Orca

10 top questions about Orca

We’ve compiled the following list of questions about killer whales that we frequently get asked.

1. How many killer whales are there in the world?

There are an estimated 50,000 or more around the world. Next to humans, they’re one of the most widespread mammals on the planet! Orca killer whales are divided into separate populations, each with its own geographical range, physical variations, diet, language and social structure—otherwise known as culture!

2. Why are they called killer whales?

As the top ocean predator, they kill other animals to make a living, although diets vary among different populations around the world. When mariners travelling the seas hundreds of years ago saw them preying on large whales (as some populations do), they labelled them in their language as “whale killers.” Over time, that got flipped to killer whales.

Karac Lindsay Photography / Eagle Wing Tours

3. What is an orca?

Orca is another word for killer whale. It comes from the whale’s scientific Latin name, Orcinus orca, which translates into “belonging to the kingdom of the dead.” Some people choose to use “orca,” arguing that “killer whale” sounds too evil. The killer whale camp—which includes most scientists—prefers to call them what they are. It’s an ongoing and lively debate!

4. How big are killer whales?

Killer whales are actually the largest member of the dolphin family! Of the three killer whale ecotypes we see off BC, the largest are the mammal-eating Bigg’s. Males are bigger than females, sometimes by as much as 30%. Bigg’s males can tip the scales at more than 6,600 kg or seven tons—the weight of about four cars! For all you dinosaur fans, that’s close to the estimated weight of a Tyrannosaurus rex!

Valerie Shore Photography / Eagle Wing Tours

5. How deep do killer whales dive?

Typical dives are less than 300 metres and last about four minutes. Some dives can be as long as 20 minutes. But killer whales can descend further and longer when food-motivated. The world record-holder is an adult female in the southern Atlantic Ocean where killer whales steal fish off the longlines of the Patagonian toothfish fleet. This particular female dove to an astonishing depth of 1,087 metres! This depth is pushing their physiology to the extreme, note researchers, as one whale spent four hours recovering at the surface!

6. How long do killer whales live?

In some ways, their life cycle is similar to that of humans. Males reach maturity at around 15 years of age and continue to grow until they’re about 20. Although their average life expectancy is just over 30, they can live as long as 60. Females can have their first calf at around age 12-14. In healthy times, a female might have a calf every 3-5 years until she’s about 40. But she can live for decades after that—to 80 years old or more. Female killer whales have the longest non-reproductive lifespan (menopause) of all animals besides humans!

Karac Lindsay Photography / Eagle Wing Tours

7. Why are killer whales black and white?

Notice how they’re black on top and white below. This is known as countershading and we see it in many other animals too. Countershading is a form of camouflage to either avoid being eaten or avoid being seen by something you want to eat! For killer whales, it makes them less visible to prey from both above and below. Also, that swirly black-and-white pattern helps break up the outline of their large bodies, further confusing their prey!

8. How do killer whales sleep?

Just like us, they need their rest. But while we breathe automatically when we enter our “unconscious” sleep, killer whales are “conscious breathers.” They have to think about each breath they take. So how do they rest without drowning? Research shows that half of the brain “shuts down,” while the other half remains active to regulate breathing and stay aware of their surroundings. They can even alternate which side of their brain is sleeping!

Valerie Shore Photography / Eagle Wing Tours

9. How many teeth do killer whales have?

They have 20-28 conical teeth on their upper and lower jaws, each 3-4 inches long. They interlock like those of a Tyrannosaurus rex! They don’t chew their food. They use those pointy teeth to grasp their food and tear it into pieces. Killer whales need to eat 5% of their body weight every day! Globally, the menu includes just about every large mammal species that lives in the sea, plus various types of fish, squid, turtles and birds such as penguins! But a lot depends on where a killer whale lives and what its mother taught it to eat. Here in the Salish Sea, the fish-eating southern residents are chinook salmon specialists while Bigg’s killer whales are marine mammal hunters!

10. How smart are killer whales?

They have the second largest brains among all ocean mammals (the sperm whale is the biggest) so that’s a clue. It weighs in at about 15 lbs. Sure, bigger animals typically have bigger masses of brain cells. Looking solely at brain weight-to-body weight ratio as a measure of intelligence, killer whale brains are 2.5 times average, similar to those of chimpanzees. But there’s more going on in those big heads. Their brains have more convolutions and surface area than ours, suggesting a heightened ability to process information and emotions. These are very complex social and emotional animals. And they’re smart, probably much smarter than we think!

Blog written by Eagle Wing Tours naturalist Valerie Shore

Seven surprising things to know about Dall’s porpoises!

Seven surprising things to know about Dall’s porpoises!

Dall’s porpoises—they’re lean mean speeding machines. Known for its agility and playfulness, this species is often mistaken for a harbour porpoise or a baby killer whale. Since they seem to be lesser known than their other Salish Sea friends, it’s time to shine the spotlight on this engaging black and white speed demon.

Here are seven things that may surprise you about Dall’s porpoises.

Dall’s porpoise showing distinctive black and white markings / Eagle Wing Tours

1. They’re big (ish)

Dall’s are the largest porpoise in the world! Porpoises are the smallest members of the cetacean family. Measuring up to 2.4 metres (8 ft.) and 200 kg (440 lb.) is impressive when compared to their smaller counterparts. In contrast, the world’s smallest porpoise, the endangered vaquita (endemic to Mexico), is only 1.2 metres (4 ft.), and 43 kg (95 lb.).

2. They’re faster than a speeding bullet

Well okay, perhaps not quite that fast. But they can swim up to 55 km per hour! Swimming this speed near the ocean’s surface produces their iconic “rooster tail” of bursting sea spray. They’re one of the few animals that can out-swim a killer whale—a rare and impressive feat. They can sprint at the same speed as the killer whale which gives a Dall’s porpoise about a 50% chance of escaping—but also a 50% chance of becoming a tasty snack!

Dall’s porpoise “rooster-tailing” at high speed / Eagle Wing Tours

3. They love surfing

Dall’s porpoises can be playful around boats and other whales. They often race directly toward boats of all sizes to play in their bow waves or wakes. Dall’s are so hardcore they’ll even brave the deafening roar of a container ship to ride the sweet waves it leaves in its path!

Dall’s porpoises not only interact with boats, but also other species of whales. They’ve been seen swimming with humpbacks and fin whales! These gentle giants are particularly attractive when they swim quickly enough to produce waves. The phrase “bow riding” may refer to whales interacting with boats, but it seems Dall’s will happily bow ride a whale if there’s nothing else around

4. They sometimes “get frisky” with harbour porpoises

Dall’s porpoises are a distinct species, yet harbour and Dall’s porpoises do hybridize. Usually the Dall’s porpoise is the mother and the harbour porpoise is the father. Male harbour porpoises are much more promiscuous than Dall’s, and they want to find as many lady porpoises as possible—regardless of the species, it seems. Hybrid porpoises may make up 1-2% of the entire Dall’s population off southeastern Vancouver Island!

Male Dall’s porpoises have an entirely different strategy. In a behaviour known as mate-guarding, they’ll stick with their lady friend to prevent other males from getting a chance with her!

Dall’s porpoise being pursued by a Bigg’s killer whale / Eagle Wing Tours

5. They’re hunted by more than killer whales

Dall’s porpoises are somewhat successful at escaping killer whales. But unfortunately they’re still hunted in the western Pacific for human consumption in Japan. Thousands are slaughtered each year in the Japanese harpoon hunt and thousands more die annually in the Japanese drift net fishery. There is ongoing concern about the sustainability of this level of exploitation in the region.

Dall’s were not targeted by commercial whalers in BC, although some have been entangled and killed by fishing gear. Despite the wide variation in population estimates—as high as 1.2 million but it could be much lower—Dall’s porpoises are considered a species of “least concern” by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

6. They’re named after an American naturalist

William Healey Dall (pronounced “dawl”) was a naturalist and palaeontologist in the mid-19th century. Dall’s porpoises are named in his honour, along with several mollusk species and a type of sheep! Contrary to popular belief, he did not name the Dall’s porpoise after himself. A friend of his at the (now) Smithsonian wanted to recognize his hard work in the field.

Dall’s porpoise / Eagle Wing Tours

7. They’re natural sopranos

Ever heard a Dall’s porpoise vocalize? We’re guessing not. Their echolocation clicks are so high-pitched that we can’t hear them! Neither can killer whales which of course is another crafty way for Dall’s to avoid getting eaten. Fortunately, we have technology to help us hear what they sound like. Listen for yourself

Find out more about Dall’s porpoises and other porpoises in the world from the Porpoise Conservation Society, one of the conservation and research organizations we support through our per guest Wildlife Fee and 1% for the Planet.

As part of our research mandate, we also assist BC porpoise researcher Anna Hall by contributing on-water data to her studies on the distribution and abundance of Dall’s and harbour porpoises in the Salish Sea.

Come out with us on a tour and you could see a porpoise for yourself! To book a tour give us a call or book online!

Blog written by Eagle Wing Tours naturalist Lili Wilson.

Balloons blow! What goes up, must come down!

Balloons blow! What goes up, must come down!

There’s a looooong list of things we always hope to see in Victoria: whales, porpoises, seals and sea lions, sea otters, eagles, an incredible variety of seabirds, and of course the fabulous scenery.

But there’s one group of items we’d like to permanently cross off our sightings list—balloons.

Sadly, we’re nowhere close to that point. Over a nine-month period in 2019, Eagle Wing boat crew picked up dozens of latex and mylar balloons floating aimlessly on the Salish Sea, some of them close to whales and other wildlife. We’ve already begun the tally for 2020.

Some of the balloons picked up by Eagle Wing crew in 2019

While some of these balloons may have been released accidentally, it’s likely many of them were deliberately released by well-meaning people and organizations at special occasions such as weddings, birthdays, celebrations of life, sporting events, business openings, and so on.

But the who, why, where and when doesn’t really matter. What’s important to know is that releasing balloons—any type, anywhere, anytime—is NOT okay. It is littering. It is environmentally destructive. And it is incredibly dangerous to wildlife.

And here’s the kicker—it’s 100 per cent preventable!

A burst balloon, resembling a jellyfish / Photo courtesy of Balloons Blow

A little knowledge goes a long way, so here are some common balloon myths, debunked.

“When released, balloons rise to heaven and disappear”

No, they don’t. They eventually fall to earth or the ocean as litter. Some land completely intact. Others burst. Many of these balloons or their fragments will end up in the ocean where they can be mistaken as food by marine animals and ingested, leading to loss of nutrition, internal injury, starvation and death. String or ribbon attached to the balloons can wrap around fins, flippers, necks and other body parts, causing injury, slow starvation and suffocation.

“It’s okay, my balloons are biodegradable”

Don’t be fooled. There’s no such thing as an “environmentally friendly” balloon. Latex balloons are widely considered a safer option than mylar and are often marketed as “biodegradable.” But they’re still dangerous. The claim that they degrade about as quickly as an oak leaf (roughly four years) does not necessarily apply in a cold marine environment where they may never fully decompose. Until they do, they put wildlife at risk.

Guests with a cluster of balloons picked up on a tour Photo by Valerie Shore, Eagle Wing Tours

“I don’t live near the ocean so my balloon won’t end up there”

Wrong. Distance from the ocean doesn’t matter. Balloon waste that falls into lakes and rivers may eventually flow out into the ocean. And airborne balloons can travel hundreds, even thousands of miles to pollute the most remote and pristine places. How far? In 1998 a balloon released at the Olympics in Nagano, Japan, landed in Los Angeles 49 hours later. That’s a distance of about 5,300 miles!

“Balloons are not a widespread pollution problem”

Yes, they are. Balloon waste is a significant part of the global marine garbage problem. The Ocean Conservancy reports that in its International Coastal Cleanup from 2008 through 2016, a total of 280,293 balloons were found along US coastlines—an average of 31,143 each year. That’s just the US. Think about that.

A dead fur seal tethered in balloon ribbon / Photo by Sue Pemberton courtesy of Balloons Blow

People who release balloons don’t care about the environment”

Not necessarily. It can be a simple lack of awareness. After four years monitoring five uninhabited beaches, researchers in the state of Virginia discovered that balloon fragments were the most prevalent type of marine debris. When they asked people who release balloons where they thought they went, the number one answer was “I never even thought about that.”

“There’s a lot of plastic in the ocean, why do a few balloons matter?”

The first part of this statement is true. Each year, eight million tonnes of plastic pollution enters the ocean from land, globally. This is like dumping the content of one garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute. Tackling this problem is going to take a concerted, global effort. But not releasing (or even buying) a balloon is an individual decision that each one of us can make.

Eagle Wing naturalist Molly with a balloon picked up on a tour Photo by Valerie Shore, Eagle Wing Tours

What can you do?

There are many alternatives to balloon releases. You can still have fun, celebrate and remember a loved one with environmentally friendly alternatives. Here are a few ideas.

  • Plant a tree or flowering bush
  • Spread floating flowers
  • Disperse wildflower seeds native to your area
  • Blow bubbles
  • Light candles (but definitely NOT sky lanterns!)
  • Create a wildlife garden to attract birds and butterflies
  • Sponsor a bench at a scenic spot
  • Donate a book to the library

And as always…

  • Dispose of waste properly, no matter where you are
  • Remember that land and ocean are connected, no matter where you live
  • Practice the “4Rs”
    • REDUCE the amount of waste you produce
    • RE-USE items when you can
    • RECYCLE as much as possible
    • REFUSE unnecessary single-use items, like plastic straws or cutlery
Mylar balloon near a long-beaked common dolphin / Photo courtesy of Balloons Blow

To learn more about balloons and marine plastic debris, we suggest the following links.

Blog written by by Valerie Shore, Eagle Wing Tours marine naturalist.

Saying goodbye to Stakaya: Action needed!

Saying goodbye to Stakaya: Action needed!

We’re absolutely devastated to share the news that the local wolf known as Stakaya, who inhabited the Discovery and Songhees Islands just off Victoria before being captured in downtown James Bay and then relocated at the end of January, has been killed by a hunter.


Stakaya rolling around at a favourite spot, soaking up the warm sun

For the past eight years, on the group of islands that lie just 3 km southeast of Victoria, we would scan hopefully along the shoreline for a glimpse of our favourite coastal wolf. For some of us, he was our “white whale” — that bucket list sighting we never managed to catch. Others on our team managed to spot him on many occasions, and we share their photographs of Stakaya with you here.


Stunning coloration allowed him to blend in with the season

During this time when we’re feeling such sorrow over this senseless death, we encourage you to learn more about the issue of wolf conservation in BC and what you can do to help.

We’d rather not go into the details about how easy (and affordable) it is to acquire a hunting license both for BC residents and non-residents alike, or the fact that any licensed hunter can take three wolves per season on Vancouver Island using a shotgun, rifle or crossbow from Sept 10–March 31 and April 1–June 15. Or the fact that this well-known wolf had a very obvious bright yellow ear tag.

We also won’t go into detail about BC’s wolf culls, against which the BC SPCA has taken a stand (you can read more about this in the links below).


Stakaya lived on Discovery and Chatham Islands, BC, Canada

Instead, we’ll leave you with a few organizations that are working hard to change BC’s relationship with wolves. We hope you’ll help us in supporting these campaigns.

Since so many of us are at home in self-isolation, why not use this time to your advantage to learn a bit more about the issues and take a few moments to write to our MLAs and tell them why supporting BC wildlife is important to you.


A free spirit. Stakaya, you are already missed

Organizations helping BC wolves:

Pacific Wild

Raincoast Conservation Foundation

Wolf Awareness

It’s our sincere hope that we can use our anger and frustration over Stakaya’s senseless death to mobilize people to action and effect change in current regulations so that one day, wolves and other animals will be better protected in our province.