by Megan McDonald
Alaska’s Orcas are some of the most fascinating marine life we have in our waters. Because these whales frequent cold waters, we are blessed with an abundance of sightings, especially off the coast of our southeastern waters.
Killer Whales are an incredible marine life mammal that is actually a part of the dolphin family.
These amazing whales are carnivores that live up to 80 years old. They can grow to a length of 32 feet, and weigh up to six tons. And this six tons of whale needs a large, varied carnivorous diet.
Different populations, or “pods,” of orcas feed on different animals.
Some exclusively hunt fish, and some hunt a wide variety of marine life mammals. These can include seals, other varieties of dolphins, and even the sea lion. Sometimes they have even been known to attack large whales!
These whales are incredibly social animals. They can even create their own language, which they use with other members inside their pod.
The pod members will understand certain sounds that are so distinctive they are recognizable at great distances. Using echolocation, this communication helps in a variety of ways, including when they hunt. The North Pacific Orcas tend to use echolocation more than other, more transient pods of killer whales. Killer whales are only silent when at rest.
The Orcas are incredibly intelligent mammals. In fact, their brain is the second largest out of any mammal on Earth.
It has the second heaviest brain among marine life. This is second only to sperm whales, which actually have the largest and heaviest brain out of any animal on the planet! This intelligence is put on display during play, and during the hunt.
Killer whales are apex predators. They have no natural predators.
Orcas are also frequently called “wolves of the sea,” because they like to hunt in packs. These packs, or pods, can consist of up to 40 family members!
They primarily hunt salmon, which is about 96% of the diet of northeast Pacific Orcas.
In fact, it is usually not the resident killer whales of an area that will eat the larger marine life. These kills are usually done by a transient pod passing through.
Because these whales are so efficient at hunting, if the resident whales consistently went after local marine animals it would decimate the prey population!
Alaska’s Orcas are quick and agile enough to grab a seal right off an ice floe! Their teeth are also four inches long, adding to the killer whale’s mystique.
Alaska has northern sea lions, called Steller Sea Lions.
These massive, beautiful animals can reach 1,300 pounds! These animals are found predominantly where you find killer whales- around Alaska’s southern coastal areas.
The Steller Sea Lion can easily eat 5-8% of its body weight in a single meal!
The sea lions can also reach up to almost 10 feet in body length. They can swim at a top speed of 30 knots, which make them incredibly difficult to catch.
Sometimes, none of these amazing attributes are enough to save them from the jaws of a hungry Orca.
With killer whales easily matching the sea lion’s swimming speed, and far outmaneuvering them in agility, it’s no surprise when the sea lion- normally a predator- loses.
In fact, the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw, a tribe in Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada, has a mythology that the killer whales ruled the undersea, and the sea lions were their slaves!
The Tlingit of Southeastern Alaska has always regarded the orca as a benefactor to humans, and custodian of the sea. Many peoples have believed the whales bring good luck. So we wish them happy hunting!
Enjoy these incredible photos? Check out some of photographer Gerry Cobban Knagin’s albums here!
After that, make sure to read more about one great town you’re likely to see killer whales in! Read A Quick Trip to Seward to Hike and Enjoy the Amazing Scenery to find out more!