Orca in the Salish Sea at Sunset

Killer whales are the ultimate (apex) predators of the world’s oceans, above even great white sharks. Here in the Pacific Northwest, they serve as ambassadors of one of the richest marine ecosystems on our planet. However, the bio-diversity in the Pacific Northwest is astonishing and includes many other marine mammals: minke whales, gray whales, humpback whales, Dall’s porpoise, harbour porpoise, California sea lions, harbor seals, elephant seals, Steller sea lions, and an unbelievable range of marine birds. Download our free marine mammal guide and free marine bird guide.

Killer whales along the coast of British Columbia and Washington are among the most studied whales in the world. Intensive field research in this region has been undertaken for 43+ years. These studies have provided increased knowledge about these whales, yet there still is much to be learned. Orcinus orca, better known as killer whales, are whales with teeth and are in fact the largest member of the dolphin family. They are found in all of the world’s oceans yet prefer cold water. Orca are mainly black with white markings located on their bellies, behind their dorsal fins (called saddle patches) and on the sides of their heads (eye patches).

There are three known ecotypes in the North Pacific: Resident, Bigg’s (Transient) and Offshore. There are two types in the North Atlantic: Type 1 and Type 2 Eastern North Atlantic. There are in the Southern hemisphere at least five known ecotypes.

Resident Killer Whales

Resident orca travel in pods made up of several large extended family groups. When several pods travel together these groups can exceed 80 animals. They are extremely vocal compared to Bigg’s (transient) killer whales.  Their diet consists primarily of Chinook salmon, though it can include up to 32 different species of fish. Residents use echolocation to locate their prey; they produce short bursts of clicks that reflect on the environment around them and produce a picture of their surroundings. They can even tell the difference between species of salmon!

Resident killer whales on the BC coast are divided into two groups: the NORTHERN community and the SOUTHERN community. The population of orca that resides in the waters surrounding southern Vancouver Island is made up of three pods: J, K and L pods, and is commonly referred to as the Southern Resident population. These whales frequent the inshore waters of the Pacific Northwest in the summer months, feasting on returning Chinook salmon populations that are running from the Pacific Ocean to the Fraser River to spawn (April-November).

The Southern Residents have been studied for the past 43 years and each individual orca has been identified.  The saddle patch (the white marking behind the dorsal fin) acts like a fingerprint and allows researchers (and whale watchers!) to keep track of their information, including ID numbers (and nicknames), ages, and family relationships.

The three pods that make up the Southern Resident population mate amongst each other and do not interbreed with the Northern Residents.

Northern Resident Killer Whale sounds:  ‘click’ on speaker

  R Clan       G Clan      A Clan

Southern Resident Killer Whales sounds:  ‘click’ on graph

J Pod             K Pod            L25 Subpod

Bigg’s (Transient) Killer Whales

Transient Orca Hunting off Vancouver IslandTransient orca are genetically distinct from residents and travel in small groups, usually up to eight animals, vocalize infrequently and eat marine mammals, including seals, porpoise and other whales. Transients are opportunistic eaters. They do not vocalize as much as resident killer whales because many of their prey have effective underwater hearing. A more successful hunting strategy used by transients is to quietly stalk their prey using surprise to their advantage with fast animals such as porpoise. Vigorous displays, such as breaches and playing, are seen less frequently in transients than in residents, for fear of their prey being alerted to their impending approach. The occasions when transients do show a lot of surface activity are usually during the act of subduing or killing their prey. Depending on the size of the animal being killed, it can be tossed around like a tennis ball, thrown between individuals using powerful tail slaps, or forced underwater repeatedly until exhausted and drowned.

  Transient vocalizations: ‘click’ on speaker

Transients can be seen all along the western coast of North America, from Glacier Bay in Alaska to the southern California coast. They tend to hug the coastline, examining each cove for unsuspecting prey that will make their next meal. They are sometimes seen far from shore, although the extent of their range in the open ocean is unknown. Transients can be seen year-round.

Offshore Killer Whales

Offshore orca travel in very large groups, use frequent vocalizations and a great deal of echolocation. It is thought that these killer whales feed on schooling fish, however nothing has been confirmed and the possibility that offshore orca also hunt marine mammals cannot be ruled out. Many details about offshore orca are still unknown, as they were only discovered in the early 1990s. They tend to spend most of their time far from the coastline in very open and exposed waters. These whales have a large proportion of nicks and scarring, relative to transient and resident killer whales, and one hypothesis is that sharks could be an item on their menu. One pod of California transient orca are known to hunt large sharks regularly with an apparent taste for the shark’s liver.

  Offshore vocalizations: ‘click’ on speaker

Most encounters with offshore orca have taken place near Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlotte Islands) and 15 or more kilometres off the west coast of Vancouver Island. However in 2003/2004, we had a very large community of offshore orca travel into the protected waters of the Pacific Northwest (120+ animals). This was a very unexpected pleasure, as many of us had never seen such a strong presence of this distinct group of orca in our area before.

Orca Sounds

Orcas vocalize regularly while going about their various activities. The clicks that you hear are the sounds orca use to echolocate (search) for food and other underwater objects. The other sounds (more high pitched) are calls that the whales use to communicate with each other. The killer whale produces its large repertoire of sounds by forcing air through various nasal sacs and cavities that can be rapidly opened and closed. The sounds are then apparently reflected toward a fatty melon in the forehead, which seems to function as an acoustic lens, focusing the sounds into a directional beam as they leave the head.

You can learn more about – and hear samples of – echolocation and vocalizations above, simply by clicking on the speakers.

Resident, Bigg’s, and offshore orca have very different vocabularies. Both the sound of the calls and the number of calls vary substantially from population to population. Transient orcas vocalize significantly less than residents because they normally don’t use sound while foraging for food. Residents will send out calls to other residents and use sound clicks to locate their prey. Transients, on the other hand, usually hunt silently, listening and looking for their prey. It is speculated that the reason for this is that the dolphins, porpoises, seals, and sea lions that constitute the transients’ primary prey could recognize transient calls and thereby rob the transients of the advantage of surprise. Transients normally begin to vocalize during or after an attack.