Aquafacts / Killer Whales

Killer whales 

You asked questions about killer whales and our biologists answered.

Quick facts

40 years old

When females experience menopause

45 kilometres per hour

Top travel speed

15 minutes

Longest dive time recorded in B.C

17 months

Length of pregnancy

How can I identify a killer whale?

Killer whales are distinctively marked black-and-white dolphins. While they can be found all over the world, there are three distinct assemblages (groups): residents, Bigg’s (transients) and offshores. Each assemblage has major differences in behaviour and social organization, and subtle differences in appearance such as the dorsal (back) fin and saddle patch. Individual killer whales are commonly identified by patterns in the grey saddle patch located immediately behind the dorsal fin, and by natural markings (scars, nicks, etc.) on the dorsal fin itself.
Resident killer whales social organization is based on small mother-led (matrilineal) groups called matrilines, which can include three to fifteen individuals. Bigg’s may leave their mother’s group around the time they mature. Offshore killer whales are poorly known, but tend to travel in groups of 30 to 60 individuals.

Where do we find killer whales in British Columbia?

Residents seem to be common on the coast from April to November, but some pods have been seen in inshore waters throughout the year. Some may go offshore or into mainland inlets during the winter. During the summer months, southern resident pods are commonly seen in Haro Strait and the San Juan Islands, and northern residents are often seen in the Johnstone Strait area.

Bigg’s killer whales are found along the B.C. coast year-round, and are constantly on the move in search of their prey. They are often found in areas where seals are abundant. A Bigg’s pod may range up to 1,500 km along the coast from Alaska to California; resident pods have been known to travel up to 2,200 km.

What does a killer whale do during the day?

Activities of both residents and Bigg’s can be grouped into four major categories: looking for food (foraging), resting, socializing and travelling. All of these seem to happen both day and night. Foraging is the most common activity, comprising about 60 percent of their daily activity. Resident pods in B.C. forage cooperatively and prey is often shared between individuals, particularly between mature females and juveniles. Mature males may sometimes hunt and eat independently from the rest of their group.
Members of Bigg’s pods cooperate to chase, corner and kill their prey, and share their kill with group members. When resting, pod members slow down, group together tightly, become mainly silent and dive synchronously for 4-5 minutes or longer. Resting periods tend to last two to three hours. Socializing also consists of sexual interactions and play among pod members. Beach rubbing is a traditional social behaviour among some northern resident pods.

How many killer whales are there in B.C. and in the world?

There are approximately 300 northern and southern residents and 225 transients in B.C./Washington waters. At least 200 offshore killer whales have also been identified. The South East Alaska resident population is just over 300 killer whales, and there are numerous other populations of transient killer whales in California and Alaska that are distinct from local populations. It is difficult to get an overall census, but researchers believe that the global population is at least 50,000 individuals.

How long do killer whales live?

Field studies in B.C. suggest that males live to a maximum of 55 years while females may reach 70-80 years of age. Average life expectancy is estimated at about 30 years for males and 50 years for females.

How do killer whales reproduce?

Some females give birth to their first calf at age 12, but most give birth at age 14-15. Usually single young are born; there is one documented case of twins in B.C. The length of pregnancy (gestation period) in aquarium killer whales has been recorded at close to 17 months and the maximum calving rate is one every three years. Females stop giving birth at approximately 40 years of age. Calves nurse from their mothers for at least one year, and sometimes up to 2 or 3 years.

How can I adopt a killer whale?

Adopt a killer whale and help support ground-breaking research on wild killer whales. Learn more about the BC Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program at www.killerwhale.org.

How can I help killer whale research in British Columbia?

If you see a whale or dolphin off the coast of British Columbia, we would love to hear about it. Report your sighting at www.wildwhales.org.

Where do we find killer whales in British Columbia?

Residents seem to be common on the coast from April to November, but some pods have been seen in inshore waters throughout the year. Some may go offshore or into mainland inlets during the winter. During the summer months, southern resident pods are commonly seen in Haro Strait and the San Juan Islands, and northern residents are often seen in the Johnstone Strait area.

Bigg’s killer whales are found along the B.C. coast year-round, and are constantly on the move in search of their prey. They are often found in areas where seals are abundant. A Bigg’s pod may range up to 1,500 km along the coast from Alaska to California; resident pods have been known to travel up to 2,200 km.

References

  1. American Cetacean Society. 2007. Orca Fact Sheet
  2. Barrett-Lennard, Lance G., and Graeme M. Ellis. 2001. Population structure and genetic variability in northeastern Pacific killer whales: towards an assessment of population viability. Canadian Scientific Advisory Secretariat, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Research Document 2001/065.
  3. Ford, John K.B., Graeme M. Ellis, and Kenneth C. Balcomb. 2000. Killer Whales: A Study of their Identification, Genealogy, and Natural History in British Columbia and Washington State. Second edition. Vancouver: UBC Press.
  4. Ford, John K.B. and Graeme M. Ellis. 1999. Transients: Mammal-Hunting Killer Whales of British Columbia. University of Washington Press.

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