Understanding This Ancient Species

Tail of Orca whale
Killer whales (or Orcas) aren’t actually whales at all. They’re the largest members of the dolphin (porpoise) family. And an encounter with one is an unforgettable experience! Orcas are found in all oceans around the world. The habits and behaviors of each family vary depending on their geographic location.

Visit our whale watching trip page for more information on the whales you may see around Salt Spring Island.

On this page, we explore the way of the Orca… a glimpse into how they operate and what they’ve come to mean to mankind.


Each killer whale pod has an individual set of sounds (dialect) they use for communication. The ocean is a deep, dark place, and these vocalizations are very important for the Orca pod members to stay together on their long journeys.

Orcas use echolocation to find their way in the deep sea. They send out low frequency ‘clicks’ which travel through the water and bounce off solid objects, then return to the whale as an echo. The Orcas read these echos to navigate through the waters, locate prey and avoid trouble.

Although echolocation isn’t completely understood by scientists at this point, there is evidence that whales can gather information on size, shape, speed, distance, direction, and even some of the internal structure of objects in the water using this specialized skill.


Pod of orca whales
Most Orca mothers are attentive to their babies, sticking close and teaching them the necessities of life as a killer whale. Some of that teaching comes in the form of discipline, which begins as early as two days after a calf is born.

Some Orca mothers are not so maternal. Researchers believe that, like humans, whales learn how to be good parents by observing and adopting the ways of their own family members.

Sadly, Orcas who don’t receive the love and nurturing from their mothers have a difficult time with the role themselves, often neglecting their babies and sometimes losing them altogether by swimming off and leaving them alone.

There are different classifications for the types of genetic groups found in the Orca species around the world. Around Saltspring Island, BC, these two groups are found..

  • Resident pods – These whale groups form a matriarchal (female-dominant) society, ranging from 5-50 Orcas of several generations who live together. These pods tend to remain in the same area, eat mainly fish and aren’t characteristically violent against other marine life.
  • Transient pods – Transient whale families are always on the move and their travel patterns vary, making them difficult to track. They live in smaller groups than the resident pods, sometimes up to 7 whales and eat marine mammals – seals, sea lions and porpoises… sometimes even other whales.Transients are less vocal than resident pods, keeping their calls to a minimum to prevent alerting their more challenging prey about their approach. They reserve their communication for after a successful hunt. Transient whales are crafty hunters.This video shows a family of transient whales teaching their young an ingenious technique…

Whales from resident and transient pods have not been observed interacting with eachother. In fact, it’s become evident to scientists that they avoid eachother, even in cases where their ‘territories’ overlap.


Aggressive gestures like tail slapping, head-butting and jaw snapping are a common display of social dominance. There is very much a hierarchy established amongst pod members. And these social behaviors are important for maintaining the natural order of things.

Some intriguing individual behaviors are displayed for a number of different reasons, although there is still much that is not understood.

  • Orca whale breachingbreaching – using its tail flukes to generate speed and upward force, the whale thrusts most of its body up out of the water and may twist slightly before landing on its side. Researchers aren’t certain why whales breach but believe it may be a display of social dominance, related to courtship or may simply be a play activity.
  • rubbing – Orcas in this area display a perplexing behaviour that has scientists scratching their heads. Each year, they return to the same pebble beaches at Robson’s Bight in the Johnstone Straight. They spend a carefree day making swooping passes in the shallow waters, rubbing their bodies along the smooth pebbles on the ocean floor. Researchers speculate that it could be a method of removing external parasites, or perhaps they do it strictly for enjoyment.
  • Orca whale spy hoppingspy hopping – whales ‘stand’ upright and pop their heads up out of the water to look for food on surrounding ice floes.
  • pec-slapping – laying on the side, whales slap their pectoral flipper on the surface of the water.

Female Orcas have a life span of up to 80 years. Males have a life span of up to 50 years. And during that long life, a killer whale remains with their family unit so that many times, four or five generations of Orcas live and travel together.


Orcas have been dubbed the ‘wolves of the sea’ because of the way they hunt in packs. Killer whales eat an average of 500lb (227kg) of food every day. With an adult body weight between 4 tons (females) and 8 tons (males), these mammoth creatures need a lot of food to stay healthy.

There have been reported attacks of Orca whales on humans. Most, however were situations where captive Orcas attacked their handlers.


Researchers photograph, identify and track resident whales, giving each a name. Individual whales are distinguished by the following…

  • Scars along the body – Orcas are sometimes injured in collisions with watercraft propellors which leaves tell tale scars where the animal’s body was wounded.
  • Orca whale podUnique characteristics of dorsal fin – The dorsal fin of a male Orca can grow up to 6 feet in height. Females have a shorter fin – around 3 feet high.Sometimes the fin appears crumpled or has sustained obvious injury. The dorsal fin of some males slumps over, rather than standing up straight. Since there is no bone in the dorsal fin, this may be due to the sheer weight of such an appendage.Note the difference (in the photo at right) between the dorsal fins of the females, which are shorter and slanted slightly backwards, versus the male’s, which is tall and stands straight upright.
  • Orca whale calf breachingColor markings – The markings on an Orca serve a much more primal purpose than making a whale uniquely identifiable to human researchers. The black and white coloring is by design.Dark on top to blend in with the dark waters, making them less visible from above. White on the bottom so that their bodies don’t stand out against the light of the sun when viewed from underneath.The way the markings are dispersed also helps make these fierce predators less visible as a threat to their prey, giving them an advantage in the hunt.


First Nation’s people believe that humans can learn many important lessons (spiritual truths, humility, etc) from the Orca. The Tlingit, Nootka, and Haida tribes in particular, revere the Orca, viewing them as ancestral spirits, rulers and guardians of the sea.

The basis of the killer whale’s significance differs among tribal cultures. Some hold the belief that Orcas are native chiefs reincarnated, or contain the spirits of fishermen who were responsible for the death of an Orca (particularly with those whales who stick close to the surface of the sea, as though trying to communicate with their human families).

Still others believe there is a connection between wolves and whales, speculating that Orcas may have originated as wolves who took to the sea having been overcome by a fog mustered by the creator as a protective measure, hampering the wolf’s ability to kill Orcas.

Native American art, particularly in the Pacific Northwest is largely centered around the image of the Orca. An artpiece featuring a killer whale is considered an ideal gift for a romantic partner, because of the Orca’s habit of mating for life and strong family connections. An Orca gift is also significant for someone who brings harmony to the giver’s life.


By Canadian law, humans may not approach within 100 meters of a marine mammal. Of course, there’s no law against them approaching you. Which they may. Orcas are extremely curious creatures.

If you encounter a killer whale, or pod of whales in your marine travels, stay quiet and turn off your boat motor. Then, soak in the moment! It’s a rare privilege to see these primitive beings up close.


Wildlife on Saltspring Island

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