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.

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.