Species: Orcinus orca

Trips: Orca and Humpback Expedition and Orca Base Camp 

Likelihood of sightings: High

The charismatic orca (or killer whale) is the largest member of the oceanic dolphin family and can be divided into a number of subspecies. Resident orcas are commonly sighted in the northeast Pacific, with Northern resident orcas the most populous. They are genetically distinct from Southern resident orcas and usually spotted in the waters around northern Vancouver Island and southeast Alaska. 

Orcas are instantly recognizable, distinguished by their black back and white chest and sides, with a white patch above and behind their eyes. They have a large dorsal fin with a dark gray “saddle patch” across the back, which is often used to distinguish individuals. They have powerful jaws and strong teeth that can withstand fierce jerking movements and will firmly hold their prey in place. 

Males can grow from 20 to 26 feet in length and weigh more than 6 tons, while females are slightly smaller. The size and strength of orcas make them one of the fastest marine mammals ever recorded, able to reach speeds of up to 35 miles/hour. Males can live anywhere from 35 to 50 years, while females have a longer lifespan of around 50 to 70 years. 

During the summer, Northern resident orcas migrate to the Johnstone Strait, although their migration patterns and where they go for the rest of the year is poorly understood. They often visit the beaches of Robson Bight in the Michael Bigg Ecological Reserve where they enter the shallow waters and rub their bodies on the smooth stones in what is a unique and fascinating social behavior. (Fun Fact: Our Orca & Humpback Expedition and Orca Base Camp Tour utilize a beach camping location that is within paddling distance of Robson Bight in the Michael Bigg Ecological Reserve.  We visit the reserve by kayak on both tours)

Northern resident orcas live in tightly bound pods, remaining with their mothers and siblings for life. Because of their complex social structure and bonds, there are concerns regarding how humane it is to keep them in solitary, captive conditions. They are particularly vocal and can be organized into three acoustic clans - A, G and R - with each clan including multiple matrilines that share a distinct set of calls, as well as having their own unique calls. In this way, researchers can identify members of a specific pod through their calls, which include a range of clicks, whistles and pulsing sounds. 

Northern resident orcas like to feed on salmon, preferring Chinook and chum salmon, although they will also eat other fish species and even squid. They are known to forage in groups and will share what they catch with the rest of the pod. Orcas are apex predators, with no animal feeding on them, and will occasionally hunt seals, dolphins and baleen whale calves. 

During the 1960s and 70s, orcas were captured across the Pacific Northwest to be displayed in aquariums and theme parks, with more than one-third of the population removed before the captures were halted. Northern resident orcas are currently listed as Threatened in Canada, mainly due to the accumulation of toxins in the water, impacts with vessels, oil spills and a lack of prey. 

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Orca Belly Rubbing

Seeing killer whales (orcas) in the wild is an incredible experience in itself, particularly northern resident orcas which are listed as threatened on Canada’s species at risk list.