Orca (Killer Whale)

(Orcinus orca)
Orca (Killer Whale) Santa Barbara Channel

Orca (Killer Whale) - Photo Credit: Bob Perry

The orca, also known as the killer whale, is an exhilarating sighting on one of our whale watching cruises in the Santa Barbara Channel or near the Channel Islands. The orca is categorized as a “toothed whale” but is actually a member of the dolphin family. Orcas live in most oceans of the world and are considered very social.

Adult orcas are easy to identify due to body characteristics. Bodies are thick and robust with large dorsal fins. The dorsal fins on male orcas are triangular in shape and may be as tall as 5.9 feet, while female orcas have dorsal fins that are shorter and rounded or curved in shape. Each orca has a gray patch behind its dorsal fin that is often termed a saddle patch. The dorsal fin and saddle patch are used to identify individual orcas.

The coloring of orcas is striking. They have black backs with a white chest and white sides. Orcas also have varying white patches above and around their eyes. Newborn orcas appear orangish or yellowish in color and change to white.

Orca males range in length from 20 to 26 feet, while females are a bit smaller and range in size from 16 to 23 feet in length. Calves are born averaging 7.9 feet in length.

Orcas are also tagged apex predators as they have no known natural enemies. Their strong teeth and jaws give them gripping ability and their speed in the water aids them in hunting their prey. Their diets include fish, seals, other marine mammals, sea turtles and birds. They are also known to prey on migrating whale calves. Typically, they hunt in groups.

Orcas use underwater sounds such as clicks to communicate with other orcas. Emitted sounds locate prey with echoes. It is believed that these sounds also help with navigation.

Orcas may be seen near the Channel Islands and the Santa Barbara Channel generally between the months of December and May. However, you may see a pod sighting of up to 8 orcas during the months of September and October. Sighting an orca breaching the surface and sailing out of the water or slapping its tail in play are visuals that you don’t want to miss.