what should we know before we free willy


ORCAS are marine mammals: they are warm blooded, air breathing, and bear their young alive. There is only one species of orca (Orcinus orca). However, geographical isolation may have created different unique races and populations. Near the Washington, British Columbian and Alaskan coasts we know that there are at least two distinct races of orcas. These are referred to as Transients and Residents. Even though these two groups share the same ocean space they differ in their social habits, range, diet and to some extent even their physical appearance. In recent years a third population, "Offshore", has been discovered living in waters adjacent to the Pacific Northwest. Not as much is known about this group, as sightings have been infrequent. They probably represent another orca community rather than a unique race of orcas.

Orcas are the largest member of the dolphin family, Delphinidae. Males grow to a maximum length of about 32ft (9.8m) and weigh 10 - 11 tons (9-10,000kg). Females are smaller and grow to a maximum length of 28ft (8.5m). They may weigh as much as 7-8 tons (6,500 - 7,500 kg). Calves at birth are about 8ft (2.4m) long and weigh about 400lbs (180 kg). Orca bodies have distinctive black and white markings. The upper body of orca is mostly black except for a white-grey "saddle" patch located on either side just behind the whale's tall dorsal fin. The underside is largely white. Both females and males have similar markings except on the underside, where it is possible to distinguish male from female. Orcas are one of the toothed whales (Odontoceti), as are other dolphins and porpoises, pilot whales and sperm whales etc. Orcas have 10 to 13 pairs of interlocking conical teeth in the upper and lower jaws, usually a total of 48. Sperm whales have teeth only in the lower jaw. Orcas use their teeth primarily for grabbing prey. The number of rings within the teeth (anuili) may indicate how old an individual is.

Orca skin is relatively thin. It feels rubbery to touch but is very sensitive. Orcas like to rub their bodies on each other and even scratch each other by raking their teeth over different areas. This means their bodies are often scored. In the Pacific Northwest, some orcas like to rub their bodies in the shallows of special beaches which are covered in small smooth stones. Underneath their skin they have a layer of blubber which keeps them well insulated from the chill of the ocean.

Orcas are easily recognized by their distinctive dorsal(located on the back) fin. The dorsal fin distinguishes male and female adults. In the mature male the erect dorsal fin may reach a height of over 5 1/2 ft (1.8m) but the female dorsal fin grows only to an average of 3ft. (0.9m). By taking photographs of the dorsal fins of orcas, Dr. Michael Bigg and his colleagues at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, B.C. were able to identify each individual orca living in the Pacific Northwest. After compiling thousands of photographs they were able to define the composition of the orca population. Each individual was assigned a number and an alphabetical letter which designated the individual's pod. The alpha-numerical system, and yearly photographic updates, has enabled researchers to keep track of pod members. Each orca also has two large pectoral fins located on each side of the body. These are probably used for balance. The bones inside these fins are remarkably like those of a human hand, but the outer covering resembles a paddle. Like all whales orcas have a graceful tail. This is called their flukes. The flukes help propel the whale through the water. Orcas are very strong swimmers and can go very fast at times.

Orcas are found in all the oceans throughout the world. The most persistent sightings have been near the continental shelves off Japan, the North American Pacific Northwest, Iceland, Norway, Scotland and Antarctica. However, nowhere are their populations very large.

In the summer and fall seasons (from June through November) of the Pacific Northwest, resident type orcas take advantage of the adundance of salmon runs, so a lot of foraging (feeding) behaviour is observed during this time. Although resident orcas generally fish individually, they probably co-ordinate their movements as a group to maximize their chances for success. The group (whether it is a small maternal group, several maternal groups or several pods) usually spread out over an area. Together they will move in the same direction. Quick, brief, changes in direction indicate that a whale has located a fish. These (resident) whales do eat other fish such as herring and "bottom" fish, but their preference is for the five different species of Pacific salmon. In other parts of the world, such as Norway, orcas eat mostly herring and have been filmed co-operatively hunting herring.... first forcing the herring into a tight ball by startling them, then (using their flukes) some whales in the group stun the fish while others take advantage and feed. Squid has been found in the stomachs of Offshore orcas. Transient orcas prefer to eat marine mammals and birds. They have never been observed eating fish. The Transient population of the Pacific Northwest has been identified as a distinct race. Their range encompasses the same waters as the Resident Communities of Washington state, British Columbia and Alaska. No one understands how these two races developed, but most likely they have been genetically separated for over 100,000 years. Perhaps the last ice age brought about geographical separation which encouraged separate breeding, cultural and feeding traditions which have remained constant since that time. Physically, the two races are very similar, but there are a some visible differences. The top of the dorsal fin of Transient orcas tends to be more pointed than that of Resident orcas. Less obvious, the saddle patch is located further forward on Transients. Transients cruise the coastal waters in search for Harbour seals, sea lions, Dall's porpoise, Harbour porpoise, Pacific Whitesided dolphins, Gray, Minke and other whales. Their hunts are highly coordinated and co-operative efforts. Sometimes a hunt will take just minutes, but at other times they last for several hours. Much of the time, Transients travel around silently in small groups. This perhaps enables them to listen intently, lessen their presence in the water, and sneak up on their prey who have well developed skills of their own and are difficult and unwilling victims. It is even thought that Transients will modify the sound of their own blows and echo location to confuse their prey.

Orca are very social animals. They live in small nuclear and extended families that we call pods, clans and communities. At the social heart is the orca mother. She and her children (the maternal group), even her adult sons, stay together throughout life. Adult daughters who have their own offspring may separate from their mother to some extent, in order to take care of their children's need, but will usually be found travelling nearby. Beyond the central mum groups, the pods are extended families of closely related mothers that are daughters, sisters or cousins, and their children. A pod can be defined as those orcas that are usually seen travelling together. For Resident orcas of the Pacific Northwest a pod may number from 5 to 50 individuals. Pod continuity extends across generations. As individual lives are long, and changes to pod composition are slow, development of new pods can take a long time, possibly many generations. Because resident orcas are such social animals, it is not unusual to see large numbers of maternal groups and pods come together and share the same area.

Clans are defined in term of the acoustic traditions of pods within an orca community. Pods which share common calls belong to the same clan. Separate clans are composed of pods which do not share calls. Pods from separate clans commonly socialize with each other within the community, even though they do not share any of the same calls. In Washington and British Columbia the Resident orca pods form two distinct Communities: Southern and Northern. These two communities total about 300 individuals. The Northern Resident Community has about 200 individuals who belong to 16 pods, whereas the Southern Resident group has about 100 individuals who belong to three main pods. All these pods are comprised of a collection of different maternal groups. The whole community is a support system for each individual, everyone is there for each other. Overt violence or aggressive behaviour between individuals, even among males, has never been observed. Instead, orca society is marked by co-operation, co-ordination, communication, trust and acceptance. During the summer season, when orcas are observed the most, the whales spend many hours intermingling with one another, with other maternal groups, with pods from the same clan and with pods from different clans. In the Northern Resident Community, preceding the arrival of a new group, one of the more frequent user groups may leave the area in order to "escort" the new group into the area. As they enter, the whales often pause in their travel. Other orcas already in the area may then come toward the arriving group, and together they may (often after an intense vocal period) become quiet, rest on the surface and then begin to socialize with each other by spyhopping (lifting their heads out of the water), rubbing bodies together, breaching (where the whole whale jumps free of the water), tail and pectoral slaps and deep diving. On occasion the greeting whales may turn around before reaching the arriving group and travel ahead. Usually, for the Northern Resident whales, once they have entered the area they head for the "Rubbing Beaches". These beaches are a unique feature of the area. Though whales have been observed rubbing in other shallow areas, their use of these particular beaches is very consistent and well documented. It seems to be an important aspect of their traditions. The beaches are covered with small flat, round and smooth stones. The whales dive, blow out air as bubbles, to lessen their buoyancy, and then skim their bodies over the stones. Sometimes several whales will use the beach at one time, but they will also take turns, waiting a short distance offshore for their turn. This activity brings the whales very close to shore. Sometimes their vocalizations are very weird and wonderful when they are enjoying the beaches.

Orcas are primarily acoustic animals. This means that they gain most of their knowledge about their environment and each other through their well developed sense of hearing. Their eyes, located on each side of their head, offer an orca about the same ability to see in the water as a cat might have in the air. Orcas also have a kind of sonar, called echo location, which enables them to find prey or navigate during night time. Echo location signals are produced in cavities within the head and emitted from the fatty "melon" located in the front part of the orca's head. When a whale sends out an echo location signal, which sounds like a series of clicks, the signal hits an object and bounces back (as an echo) to the whale. The whale's sizable brain, which is nearly four times as big as a human's, processes the information and the whale can then "see" the object.

Communication lies at the core of orca social awareness. Family members are seldom out of hearing range of one another. Their calls, as loud as a jet plane's engines, echo over many miles in the ocean. Everyone knows where he or she is and where everyone else are too. Given the strength of their attachments to each other, this must have a very calming effect on them. Communication is an essential ingredient of the glue that brings harmony to the orca community. Orcas make three types of vocalizations: clicks, whistles and pulsed calls. The clicks are part of the whale's sonar and are used for echolocation: for finding and location food sources, for defining other objects in the ocean and locating the whale in its environment. Whistles are typically continuous tone emissions that may last for many seconds. Calls, simply put, are pulsed signals which have discrete patterns that can be recognized by ear or by spectrogram. They are the main component of the orca communication repertoire. When Dr, John Ford categorized the discrete call types for the orcas of the Pacific Northwest he discovered that each pod has its own collection of calls which he called their "dialect". He was then able to define larger acoustic groups or clans by grouping together pods which share common calls. Only pods which share common calls are part of that clan. The differences in vocal call types between clans does not seem to limit the various maternal groups and pods within a community from coming together and socializing. The role of these calls is not known. The different calls are a way for the whales to keep track of each other over large distances, in the dark, or when large congregations occur. Though it has not been demonstrated, there is certainly potential for communication of complex specific information in calls. Sometime groups are very vocal, and at other times the groups may be silent. The calls are not necessarily modified in sound level to accommodate whales travelling close together.

is the orca an endangered animal?
On the surface, orca communities such as the Northern Resident Community, seem to be surviving and thriving. Annually, this community increases by about 2%. But there are concerns. We know that orca communities are very localized and never very large. They are self contained, perhaps even self sustained social units. They are therefore very fragile and need protection. In Japan, coastal whaling and live captures have removed over 1600 orcas since the send of World War II. Most likely, if there were resident type populations in Japanese waters, these are now destroyed. Sightings of orca are now very rare. In February 1997 a group of 10 Transient type orcas passed offshore of Taiji. This was the first such sighting in ten years and the whales were immediately rounded up by being driven into shore. Five members were shipped away to aquariums. Three of the whales were young females, one who later died was pregnant. Survival prospects of the Japanese orca population must be precarious at best. The Pacific Northwest communities, especially the Southern Community, came close in the 1960s and 1970s, to the same fate as the Japanese population. Almost 70 orcas were removed from this population for the captive industry. Many died in the capture attempts, and as young juveniles were preferred, a whole generation disappeared. It has taken the Southern Resident orcas almost thirty years to recover their former numbers. When it was no longer popular to capture whales in the Pacific Northwest, the captive industry shifted their efforts to Iceland. Since the 1970's that population has been hit very hard, and many of its members, including famous Keiko (Free Willy) were shipped away and lost to their families. Unlike the the Pacific Northwest, there is not even any knowledge about the Icelandic population, and so we may never know what damage has been done. Many hundreds of Antarctic orcas have been hunted and killed by Russian and Japanese whalers. Again, we will never know what damage to the population this has done.

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