Educational Series: Orcas, Majestic Predators of the Oceans, Need Our Help to Survive

By Nick Engelfried
Few animals possess the ability to call up as many, often conflicting emotions in human beings as the orca. Sometimes known as “killer whales,” these remarkable creatures have sometimes been portrayed as killing machines that are to be feared for their adeptness as predators. More recently, growing numbers of people have come to recognize orcas as highly intelligent animals with complex social networks reminiscent of human societies. One thing that is hard to dispute, though, is that orca populations around the world are in jeopardy and need our help if they are to survive for years to come.

Orcas are the largest members of the dolphin family, and among the biggest of the group known as toothed whales–a branch of the evolutionary tree that includes all dolphins and porpoises, as well as other species like belugas and massive sperm whales. While only about half the size of a sperm whale, orcas are one of the biggest predators to hunt in the ocean’s upper zones (sperm whales mainly feed in the deep sea). At up to 30 feet long, a full-size orca is larger than the biggest great white shark, and is equipped to hunt down powerful animals like tuna and sea lions–or even larger prey. Yet, they are highly selective about what they eat, and there are no records of a wild orca ever attacking a human being

In February 2022, for the first time ever, scientists studying orcas off the coast of Australia recorded a large group in the act of killing and feasting on a blue whale, the most massive animal in the oceans. This raises an important point about orca behavior: they are highly social animals who work together–much like wolves–to bring down prey that a single individual could never manage to kill on its own. Different social groupings of orcas adhere to their own distinct rules of behavior. This makes them one of the few non-human animals that have been shown to have culture, or a collection of traditions specific to a group that is passed down through the generations.

Most orcas live and hunt in pods of 15 or fewer individuals, which are organized into larger groupings known as clans. Different orca clans may have very different feeding habits, behavioral norms, and ways of communicating, even if they live in relatively close proximity to one another. For example, the “resident” orcas in the Salish Sea region off Washington and British Columbia are known for their diet that consists almost exclusively of Chinook salmon. Meanwhile, “transient” orcas whose range overlaps with the residents prefer hunting seals, sea lions, and dolphins.

Although orcas live all over the globe–they are one of the most widely distributed whale species–those in the Salish Sea have been better studied than many other populations, and much of our knowledge about orca behavior comes from them. The region is home to four clans of resident orcas who can be found in the Salish Sea itself from May through September. Although southern residents may venture as far south as California at other times of year, they tend to hug the coastline and rarely swim far out to sea.

Other orcas, the marine mammal-eating transients, also frequent the Salish Sea but are more likely than the residents to be just passing through on their way to distant waters, including as far away as Alaska. Residents and transients communicate using such different vocalizations that they are widely considered to have their own, distinct “languages.” In addition, when and under what conditions an orca chooses to vocalize may depend on whether it is a resident or transient. Transients stay largely silent while they hunt, presumably so as to sneak up on the mammals they eat. Residents, on the other hand, are often highly vocal as they hunt their coveted Chinook salmon.

In addition to being among the world’s most studied orcas, the Salish Sea southern residents also provide a prime example of why life in the twenty-first century can be dangerous for these intelligent mammals. From 97 individuals in 1996, the southern resident population has dwindled into the law seventies, partly as a result of declining Chinook salmon–which themselves are under pressure from dams, warmer waters caused by climate change, and other factors. Without quick action to protect their marine habitat and rebuild salmon populations, the last southern residents are in danger of literally starving to death.

Although they numbered almost a hundred individuals just a few decades ago, it is unclear how large the southern resident population may originally have been, largely because by the time researchers began closely tracking their numbers, they had already endured years of persecution. In 1972, prior to the passage of laws like the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act which protect wild orcas today, seven southern resident orcas were violently captured in nets and taken from their habitat by profiteers seeking to sell them to entertainment venues. The operation was part of a larger trend that saw more than 40 Salish Sea orcas removed from their native waters.

Today, only one of these captured individuals survives. Lolita, also known as Tokitae, was purchased by the Miami Seaquarium at age four for $6,000. She has spent the last 50 years at the seaquarium, living in a tank just 20 feet deep. Animal rights activists and members of the Indigenous Lummi Nation–whose ancestral traditions consider the Salish Sea orcas to be relatives–have fought to secure Lolita’s release, and now hope may finally be on the horizon. After the Mexico-based Dolphin Company purchased the Miami Seaquarium in 2021, the new owners announced Lolita would no longer be publicly displayed. However, the question of whether she will be returned to her native sea to live out the last years of her life in peace remains unanswered.

While orcas in U.S. waters are no longer forcibly taken from their habitat, the plight of the southern residents shows that those living in the wild are by no means safe from human interference. Orca populations’ proclivity for developing distinct cultural traditions is one of the things that makes studying these animals so fascinating–but it presents unique challenges when it comes to protecting them. The southern residents, for example, are now so accustomed to feeding on Chinook salmon that their fate has become inextricably tied to that of the fish. Restoring salmon populations–particularly through removal of dams and other barriers to their upriver migrations–is essential if the southern residents are to avoid extinction.

Other threats to orcas include pollution of their marine habitat, noise from tour boats and other seagoing vessels, and climate change that threatens to disrupt marine ecosystems in a myriad of ways. What is certain is that orcas, one of the most intelligent and social animals in the oceans, depend on the goodwill of people who care about animals and the environment. Only if we speak up on their behalf will they survive.

Photo credit: Terabyte

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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