Orca or Killer Whale, Orcinus orca: The Orca or Killer Whale, sometimes referred to as "The Wolf of the Sea," is the largest member of the Delphinidae Family which includes all of the oceanic dolphins. They are air-breathing mammals, taking air on the surface through a single blowhole. The blow is a single, low, bushy cloud. They are recognized by their dark black skin with distinctive white patches.
They have stocky bodies and a rounded head with a distinctive beak. They have 10 to 13 pairs of large interlocking conical teeth distributed in both the upper and lower jaws that average 3 inches in length and 1 inch in diameter. They have a tall sickle-shaped dorsal fin, up to 6 feet high in males and 4 feet in females, and large paddle-like flippers. They are known for their breaching, spy-hopping (poking the head out of the water to look around), and tail-slapping behavior. Their most famous representative is Shamu, the mascot of Sea World in San Diego, Calif.
The Orcas are efficient hunters, being very fast swimmers capable of reaching 30 m.p.h. They travel in packs or pods of up to 40 individuals and they consume a very diverse diet of fish, squid, sharks, marine mammals including seals and both young and old blue whales, turtles, octopi and birds including gulls and penguins. They dive to depths of 100 feet in order to hunt and consume in excess of 550 pounds of food per day. Within a pod there is strong bonding that continues for life.
Orcas grow to 33 feet in length and to 18,000 pounds with males larger than females. Males have a life expectancy of 50 to 60 years, females 90 years. They are found in all oceans of the world, including all Mexican waters where they are deemed to be transient visitors, but are more abundant in cooler waters. Unlike other whales, such as the California Gray Whale, Orcas do not have an annual migration but travel according to the availability of food. Orcas breed in the winter and early spring and have gestation periods of 16 to 17 months. A 6.5 to 8-foot, 400-pound calf is born tail-first between October and March. Newborns take their first breath within 10 seconds of birth and are able to swim on their own within 30 minutes. The mothers and young travel together for one year or longer.
The current global population of Orcas is difficult to estimate and can only be determined via photography of individual whales or acoustical sonar. There are an estimated 1,000 Orcas living in Alaskan waters at present. They are considered by the Canadian Government to be an endangered species. The Orca is at the top of the food chain and its only known predator is man.