Tag Archives: killer whales

Whale Behavior

This week, I want to take a closer look at whale behavior. Over the past few weeks, I’ve mentioned various behaviors, and while the reason for some behaviors seems obvious,others are not so easily explained.

Fin Whales
Fin Whales

Blowing or spouting: This is how whales breathe, so there is no mystery why whales blow. The spray of water is of course not from the whale’s lungs, but it is water that is blasted from the top of the blowhole when the whale exhales. What is interesting is that whales can sometimes be identified by their blow. If all I see is an exhalation and very little of the body, I can usually tell whether I’m looking at a humpback or a fin whale, the two most common whales in Uyak Bay. A fin whale’s blow is very tall and column-shaped while a humpback has a shorter, bushy blow.


Fluking: Some species commonly raise their tail flukes in the air before a deep dive, and others do not. A humpback often raises its tail, while a fin whale seldom does. Why? I don’t know. Humpbacks are more acrobatic than fin whales, and this may have something to do with it.

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Breaching: This is when a whale propels its body upwards until at least 40% of it is clear ofDSC_0077 (2) the water. Adult blue whales rarely, if ever, breach, because they are too heavy. Fin whales are also very heavy and rarely breach, but when they do, it’s impressive! Humpbacks breach fairly often, and like most large whales, a humpback breaches by raising 90% of its body clear of the water surface and then twisting and crashing down with a large smack and a torrent of spray. Killer whales are capable of acrobatic leaps and somersaults. Scientists have offered many explanations as to why

Minke Whale
Minke Whale

whales breach, and it is probable they breach for a variety of reasons, including mating display, annoyance, aggression, a show of strength, a means of stunning prey, or removing parasites. I suspect one of the main reasons whales breach is because it’s fun. Wouldn’t you do that if you could?



Slapping: This category includes flipper slapping, tail slapping, dorsal fin slapping, DSC_0650lobtailing or tail lobbing, and head slapping. Possible explanations for this behavior include a display, aggression, communication, or a means of stunning prey. Humpbacks often lobtail and flipper slap, and both actions make a very loud noise, so it would be an DSC_0642effective means of communication.



Spyhopping: This is simply when a whale sticks its head out of the water and

Photo by Bob Munsey
Photo by Bob Munsey

looks around. By doing this, it can locate a passing vessel or find escape holes or channels in pack ice. Whales may also spyhop to look at people on a boat. Since visibility is better in air than it is in water, it only makes sense that a whale might want to stick its head out of the water to get a better look.


DSC_0072Flipper Waving: Whales sometimes float on their backs and wave their fins in the air. No one knows why, but it looks fun.

Sleeping: One of our brilliant summer guests (I’m talking about you, Karin!) asked me how whales sleep. I was embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know, so I checked and was quite surprised by the answer. Since whales are mammals, they must breathe air, so how do they sleep without drowning? Research has shown that they either sleep while swimming slowly next to another animal, or they rest vertically or horizontally in the water. Scientists believe that when a whale or dolphin sleeps, it shuts down only half of its brain, and the other half stay awake. The side that is awake watches for predators or other dangers and also signals the animal to rise to the surface and take a breath of air every few minutes. After approximately two hours, the whale shuts down the active portion of its brain and the other side wakes up and takes over.  To read more about this amazing behavior, check out this article.

Photo by Bob Munsey
Photo by Bob Munsey

There are many other whale behaviors, including feeding behaviors that I did not cover here. If you have any questions, please ask. Also, if you love mysteries, sign up for my monthly Mystery Newsletter. I am currently working on the first issue, and I apologize to those of you who have already signed up for it. It is taking me longer than I anticipated to get the first installment ready to go.


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.


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!