Return to the Wild - Evolving perspectives on Canadian wildlife
The orca's range surrounds Canada in all its three oceans.

Did you know?

The orca is the second most widely distributed mammal in the world — the first being humans.

Scientific name: Orcinus orca
Average weight: 6,500 kg (male)
4,500 kg (female)
Average height: up to 1.8 m (male)
less than 1 m (female)
Average length: up to 9 m (male)
up to 7.7 m (female)
Average lifespan: 30 years – can live over 50 years (male)
50 years – can live over 80 years (female)
Several orcas swim along Canada's West Coast.

Canadian Geographic articles

The whale called ‘killer’

By Erich Hoyt
April/May 1978

Long thought a nuisance and a competitor for salmon on the West Coast of Canada, writer Erich Hoyt reveals the beauty and the grace of the orca.

The orca, also called the killer whale, is the largest member of the dolphin family, and ranges from Antarctic waters to the waters of the Arctic. An incredibly competitive carnivore, the orca doesn’t limit its diet to fish only — it goes after seals, other species of dolphins and larger whales as well. Pods are both migratory and localized, depending on their needs and the ocean conditions, and there is some indication that stationary groups will specialize in certain types of food (for example, the pod studied by the writer mostly seemed to eat fish and was not interested in larger fare).

To show that the orcas aren’t great competitors for fish after all, Hoyt and three others had formed a research unit to record and observe killer whale behaviour. The Stubbs pod became the focus of their study, and showed that not only are these dolphins very much a family species, but they had little or no interest in the pesky humans following them around with video cameras. Spending summers observing the orcas, Hoyt and his fellow researchers were lucky enough to see killer whales mating and frolicking in the Johnstone Strait off of British Columbia.

Though these whales can eat up to 23,000 kilograms of meat in a year, Hoyt concludes, it is ultimately us who have invaded their waters and over compete for their fish.

The great killer whale debate

By Bruce Obee
January/February 1992

Examining what it means to keep animals — especially large, possible sentient ones such as the killer whale, also called the orca — in captivity, Bruce Obee writes an interesting article on the tamed orca.

Long thought to be a menace to fishermen and great killers of the ocean, the first orca was captured in 1968, when the Vancouver Aquarium requested that one be killed so an artist could use it as a model for a sculpture. However, despite several attempts to kill the dolphin, it survived and was dragged back to shore. The aquarium adopted the orca, Skana, and rehabilitated it, realizing that these creatures were not the bloodthirsty animals that everyone made it out to be. This was followed by a flurry of requests by aquariums around North America for live captures of killer whales, and for a brief period of time, they would pay anywhere from 20,000 to 140,000 dollars for one whale. At first they were trapped near the shores of North America, but with the discovery of large pods in the North Atlantic and the realization that Pacific orcas numbered not in the thousands but in the hundreds, much of the killer whale capture programs occurred around Iceland.

Captive orcas are not pets, by any means. At the time this article was written, cases of trainers and caretakers had been mauled by captive beasts existed — including a young woman drowned by three orcas when she fell into their tank. Scientists speculate that the monotony of the aquarium creates a sort of sensory deprivation for the large mammals and unprovoked attacks are a way to alleviate that boredom, so to speak.

Researchers were also questioning the validity of orca study in captivity — if their behaviours were different in an aquarium, it would be incredibly hard to apply this research to wild populations. There was also the issue of life span and reproduction — many orcas seemed to live shorter lifespans in captivity, as well has having a harder time reproducing.

Keeping killer whales in aquariums became a matter of morality for many people who saw the large animals as more than just dolphins.  They posed this question: how could we justify keeping orcas, animals that biologists speculated were one of the most likely marine mammals to have their own language, in captivity at all?

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