Why an orca is not just an orca

Sometimes we are fooled into thinking that the world is getting smaller… We can fly around it so fast, access information about every corner of it in seconds, watch instant live pictures of the most remote places from the familiarity of our homes… Smaller and smaller, more known less unknown, more commonplace less remarkable… Easily taken for granted and less easily able to shake us awake to look with wide-eyed wonder at the incredible, unfathomable, bounteous marvels around us.

Because really, the world is not getting smaller and it is still filled with wonder, more wonder than most of us can handle in one lifetime. (Maybe it is just our minds shrinking a little during our adult lives that fool us into thinking otherwise.) When we can summon just a little energy to step outside the relatively small box of everyday life, take ten minutes to explore something new, turn on a computer and look up new realms of interests, read a book about something we know nothing about, (never mind jumping on a plane and visiting someplace new)… We can stumble across things that explode the world open again and show us how vast it really is.

Take killer whales for example… A killer whale is a killer whale isn’t it? If you’ve seen one off the coast of Canada, you know what one living in Antarctica waters is like. They are the biggest of dolphins, have teeth, hunt sea lions, are black and white, are pretty stunning when you first see one, but once you’ve seen that plus a few pictures, no big deal… They’re just killer whales after all, what more do you need to know?

Mmmm, as I am finding out, the world of orcas is so much bigger than that and to think otherwise is to do a great injustice to orcas and to people who know better. Some such people are so intensely interested in killer whales that they spend their entire lives trying to learn more about them and passing that knowledge on to others. Peggy Stap of Marine Life Studies is one such person; she turns into an excited, energy-filled firecracker everyday that she heads out into Monterey Bay looking for killer whales. And she is not alone; just ten minutes online-orca-fact-hunting will bring a flood of knowledge into your lap about orcas and the people who study them around the world.

After my confusion about orcas and their seemingly misplaced classifications of residents (who do not reside in Monterey Bay at all); transients (who seem to reside or, at least, visit the bay most frequently); and offshores (who inhabit some mythic realm of my imagination in some distant ocean along with giant squids, Poseidon and krakens)… I did some online-orca-hunting of my own and suddenly found the world of the killer whales opening up before me and getting a whole lot bigger.

Killer whales are not just killer whales and, apparently if you know what you’re looking for, they do not even all look alike. Throughout the world, over the last few thousand years, orcas have separated off into distinct groups. Maybe in much the same way as humans travelled out of Africa, dispersed around the globe and developed different diets, skin colour and language, so too have killer whales formed different ‘races’.

Resident and transient orcas were first named by a scientist called Dr. Michael Bigg who studied them in the north-east Pacific off the coast of British Columbia and Washington State during the 1970’s. By the late 1980’s a third type of orca was discovered and named; the offshore killer whales. (This is, of course, the reason why the term ‘resident orca’ does not denote an orca residing in Monterey Bay; their names were, in part, based on geography. If killer whales had first been studied and named in California, then who knows, perhaps they would have ended up with different names.)

Around the world, there are at least ten orca types (residents, transients and offshores are the names given to the types seen in the north-east Pacific), and it is an ongoing point of research and discussion as to whether the different types are the same species, sub-species or entirely separate ones. In the meantime, the word ‘ecotypes’ has been adopted to denote the different types.

I cannot in one blog post do killer whales any justice by attempting to present the uniqueness and complexity of each ecotype. So, to give you just a tiny snapshot of their ‘characters’, let’s imagine we are in a speed-dating scenario, attempting to decide which orca-ecotype we would like to take on a date to the prom (to borrow Peggy Stap’s nickname for killer whales). I’ll allow each ecotype a few words to introduce themselves, but only as many as can be read in 30 seconds or so:

THE SOCIAL BUTTERFLY

Hi, I’m a resident killer whale. I’m a popular dude, everyone knows me, as I am the most known of all orcas. I’m quite transparent, relatively speaking, and you know what you are getting with me as I tend to hang out in my favourite places pretty consistently. That’s not to say I don’t explore, I can still be a nomad and might travel 100 miles in a day to find my food, but my range is smaller than other orcas and I return to my resident areas often. I am a total socialite, family is very important to me, and I tend to hang out with my family and friends in pods of 50 or more. I am very vocal and also quite an exhibitionist, able to perform the odd acrobatic trick when the mood takes me. I consider myself a food connoisseur as my diet is pretty selective and high end; I can eat salmon, salmon, salmon, all day long and never tire of it. If you want a date with me then come and hang out with my family and friends, and we’ll have a good long chat over a salmon dinner to get to know each other more.

THE DRAMATIC MOVIESTAR

Well hello there, I’m a transient killer whale and I’m the orca most likely to appear on your TV screens as I can provide the necessary WOW-factor. This is because of my choice of food as I am a hunter of BIG and FAST prey. I like to eat marine mammals and I’ll go after anything from a seal or sea lion to a porpoise, dolphin, gray whale or even a minke whale. I get about quite a bit, especially as some of my prey has the tendency to migrate, so one day you might find me hanging out in southern California and the next in the waters off Alaska. I am social in my own way, but not as much so as a resident and I certainly never choose to mix with them. I tend to hang out in matriarchal groups of 8 or so, but I may or may not stay with that group so don’t try to pin me down. I am not as loud as those noisy residents, but that is partly because I have to be stealthily quiet to hunt my prey. If you want a date with me then be ready for some thrilling action as I’ll show you what it’s like to be a lean and mean killing machine.

THE MYSTERIOUS WILD CARD

Hmm, I’m not going to say too much about myself; you’ll have to explore much further to find out more about me as I am the least known of all the orcas. I like to maintain my air of mystery by living in the open ocean, far offshore, and away from the prying eyes of humans. I may or may not be pretty sociable in the privacy of other orca company; I’ve been spotted in pods of 20 to 60 animals, but pods as big as 200 have also been seen. I tend to sport quite a few scars on my body, but I’ll let you try and work out how they got there. I also have rather worn down teeth, perhaps from the sharks that are a part of my diet, as they do tend to have rather abrasive skin. I speak a very different language than either the residents or transients, but maybe that is because our paths do not cross that often. If you want a date with me I’m not going to make it easy for you, you’ll have to travel far out to sea to try and find me wherever I might be.

Well, if your speed dating encounter with killer whales has made you keen to have a second date and find out more, there are a couple of places I can recommend you turn to. I came across the most fascinating in-depth writing about orcas in the Spring 2011 issue of the American Cetacean Society’s Journal. I found this document displayed as a link from the Orca Network, which is another great resource for killer whale facts and conservation ideas. And, of course, I must give a shout out to Planet Whale; if you want to find out about killer whale watching trips or conservation groups that focus on killer whales around the world, this is THE place to go.

So please, please, please, the next time you are sitting in your armchair imagining that the world is getting a little bit smaller as you watch a rerun of some old TV series, show a touch of kindness for yourself and the world, turn off the TV and find yourself a date to the prom with an orca, a whale or some other precious treasure from our world’s wide, wonderful and never-ending offering of treasures beyond measure. Who knows, maybe it’ll be eternal love at first sight!

All killer whale and humpback whale photos courtesy of Peggy Stap and Marine Life Studies

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