Category Archives: Orca

Orca biology and behavior near Kodiak Island

Summer Update

This week, I would like to give you a summer update. Last week, I wrote about the difficult spring and summer I have had, but I didn’t want to leave things on a negative note. I began writing my last post a few weeks ago, and since then, I have gotten stronger and am beginning to recover the use of my muscles. Lately, I’ve been going out on the boat nearly every day with our summer guests; although, I will admit I’m not much help.

While I have been challenged by the physical demands of my job this summer, spending my days with our guests and the wildlife of Uyak Bay has done much to repair my psychological health. Mike took the above photo one day when a pod of Orcas fed and frolicked near our lodge. An abundant, sustained pink salmon run this summer has provided food for everything from Orcas to bears to eagles. Our fishermen have also enjoyed catching salmon.

Soon after my return from the hospital (you can read about that drama in my last post), a group of Australian guests involved us all in an interactive murder game, lasting their entire stay. The game was great fun and had us each trusting no one else in camp. It did not surprise me when Mike (my husband) won the game by murdering the most people. As if my summer hadn’t already been bad enough, Mike even murdered me!

The most uplifting news for me this season was to learn that a sow we have watched for the past eight years showed up this summer with three newborn cubs. The sow was badly injured by another bear when she was very young, and her rear end was flayed open. The injury was so bad, we didn’t think she would survive. We were happy and surprised to see her the next summer, and while the scar has faded over the years, it is still obvious. She has always been a favorite bear for us and our guests because she seems to like to perform in front of us, often catching a fish and then turning toward the photographers, fish held high while the cameras whir. The walls in our dining room are covered with photos of bears, and many of the photos are of her. As the years passed, and she appeared by herself summer after summer, we assumed she was a barren sow and wondered if the horrific injury she received when she was little more than a cub had anything to do with her inability to reproduce. We couldn’t have been more surprised when she showed up this summer with three tiny cubs trailing behind her, and I immediately began e-mailing some of our past guests to tell them the exciting news. From all accounts, she is a good mother, and all those years of fishing on her own have made her a proficient provider. She still doesn’t seem afraid of us, but she keeps her distance from humans now because she has more than herself to worry about.

We still have several weeks left of our summer season, and if nature follows its usual trend, fishing will peak in late August, and bear viewing will get better every day right up until our last day of the season in mid-September. Every year, nearly 50% of our guests are returnees, and this year is no exception. We love the mix of returnees and new guests, and I like to think of it as old and new friends.

No matter how bad the first part of my summer was, I knew things would improve once I climbed onto our boat, the Mary Beth, and began enjoying adventures with our guests.

You can read more about our lodge at www.munseysbearcamp.com .

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Killer Whales

Orca 09-13-09

Killer whales (or orcas) are not really whales but are the largest members of the dolphin family, Delphinidae. With their brilliant black and white markings, they are easy to identify and distinguish from other whales. Killer whales exhibit sexual dimorphism, meaning males and females look very different from each other. Adult males in the North Pacific may grow to a length of 27 ft. (8.2 m) and weigh as much as 13,300 lbs. (6,000 kg), while females grow to an average length of 23 ft. (7 m) and weigh about half as much as a large male. Also, a male’s dorsal fin may reach 6 ft. (2 m) in height, while a female’s rarely exceeds 3 ft (1 m).

Photo by Bob Munsey
Photo by Bob Munsey

Killer whales are mostly black on their dorsal surface and white on their ventral surface. They have an elliptical white patch on the lateral side of each eye and large white patches that extend from the ventral surface onto the flanks. There is a usually a gray or white saddle area behind the dorsal fin, and this marking varies from one individual to the next, making it useful for identification.

Killer whales are second only to humans as the most widely-distributed species of mammal. They can be found in all oceans and most seas, but they are most common in coastal, temperate waters. They are apex predators and prey on a variety of vertebrates and invertebrates. They are known to prey upon over 140 species, and they are the only cetaceans that routinely prey upon marine mammals, with documented attacks on 50 different species.

Orcas in Amook PassIn the northeastern Pacific, three distinct ecotypes of killer whales have been identified. Resident killer whales mainly eat fish, while transients concentrate on marine mammals. The third type known as offshores have not been well studied, but it is thought they primarily feed on fish, including sharks. All three types are genetically distinct, suggesting there is little or no breeding between the types, and it is possible they should be considered separate subspecies. There are differences in size, coloration and physical appearance between the three types, as well as differences in hunting strategies. Transients forage in smaller groups than residents, and transients travel silently when hunting, while residents produce a variety of clicks, whistles, and pulsed calls for echolocation.  Killer whale populations in other regions of the world may also specialize in their feeding habits, but more research is needed to be certain. Killer whales often work together to catch fish or marine mammals, and when preying on large animals such as whales, they may attack as a pack, tearing apart the whale from several angles.DSC_0155

Killer whales are very social and usually travel in groups or pods of up to 20 individuals, and members of a pod are linked to each other by maternal descent. Females become sexually mature at 15 years of age on average, and they may give birth at intervals of three to eight years. Killer whales can breed all year, and the gestation period averages 17 months. Whales in a pod often work together to care for the young, and young females will help mothers care for their babies. It has been estimated that males live at least 50 years on average, while females may live 80 years.

Killer whales are highly vocal and use sound for socialization as well as for echolocation.Scientists have learned that call repertoires of resident pods have features that are distinct to that pod, forming group-specific dialects. A second pod may share some of the call repertoire of the first pod, but other sections will be distinct to the second pod.   The amount of similarity of call repertoires between pods reflects the degree of

Photo by Bob Munsey
Photo by Bob Munsey

relatedness between the pods. Killer whales socialize in a number of other ways too, including acrobatic aerial behaviors, such as breaches, spy hops, flipper slaps, tail lobs,and head stands. I’ll discuss more about these various behaviors next week.

Killer whales are always a treat to watch. We only see them a few times a year deep inside Uyak Bay, and it is always exciting. I’ve seen a large group of killer whales herding fish, a small pod trying to catch harbor seals hauled out on an island, and one killer whale with a large octopus in its mouth. Sometimes they want nothing to do with us, and other times, they swim alongside our boat leaping out of the water and diving beneath us. This summer we saw a large bull swimming by himself in water so shallow he couldn’t submerge his tall dorsal fin. He was in an area near a salmon stream, and we assumed he was feeding on salmon.

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Have you had any experiences with killer whales? If so, please leave a comment to tell us about it. Also, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask, and for anyone who is a lover of true crime stories, please visit my home page and sign up for my monthly Mystery Newsletter!