What is a Pod? A pod is an extended family containing maternal groups composed of mothers and their offspring. Some of these family units have had as many as four generations traveling together. The Southern Resident Community of endangered orcas have three pods: J, K, and L.
J Pod is presently (January 2017) composed of 24 individuals. Granny (J-2) will likely be forever the oldest matriarch in J Pod. She died in late 2016 at the estimated age of 105. J Pod is often seen along the western shore of San Juan Island and are the only pod seen at least once a month throughout the winter months.
K Pod is presently composed of 19 individuals (December 2016). During the summer, K Pod can be seen almost daily, feeding on salmon along the west side of San Juan Island.
L Pod is the largest pod and is composed of 35 individuals (December 2016). L pod members often split up into matrilines and smaller groups. L Pod spends time on the west side of San Juan Island along with K Pod and J Pod during the summer.
Where do the orcas go in the winter? The Southern Resident killer whales spend much of the winter along the coast in the Pacific Ocean. This is because their main food source is salmon. Since the salmon numbers decrease in the Salish Sea during the winter, resident killer whales disperse and hunt for salmon in the open North Pacific. In past years, during the winter months, some Southern Resident pods have been as far south as Monterey, California and as far north as Southeast Alaska.
What do orcas eat? Resident orcas eat exclusively fish with salmon (primarily Chinook) the majority of their diet. Transient orcas prefer to eat other marine mammals like seals, sea lions, and other whales.
How much do orcas eat? An adult orca eats up to 100-300 pounds per day.
How do the orcas find fish? Killer whales are Odontocetes or toothed whales, which typically locate prey and navigate using echolocations or sonar. An oil-filled, elliptical-shaped organ called the melon sits on the front of the skull. Behind the melon are air sacs that branch off of the airway. Killer whales generate clicks, long whistles, or complex calls by forcing air through air sacs in the nasal passage. These pulses of air are focused through the melon and ahead of the whale. The pulses emitted by the whale bounce off of the prey item, a fish for example, and return to the whale's skull via the lower jaw. The lower jaw is hollow and oil-filled. The returning echos are focused through the lower jaw and vibrate the inner ear bones that are free floating in oil. The ear bones then send the message to the brain. Through echolocation, the whale can find out where the fish is, how big it is, what species it is, how fast and what direction it is swimming.
How do the orcas communicate? The Southern Residents communicate through a series of clicks, whistles and pulsed calls. The calls are emitted beneath the blowhole or the air sacs behind the melon. All Southern Residents (J, K, & L Pods) share around 30 calls; though within each pod the whales have specific calls that are similar to an accent. The Whale Museum installed an underwater hydrophone off the Lighthouse at Lime Kiln Point State Park. When orcas pass by the lighthouse and are vocalizing, we can hear them live. Click here to listen to the Lime Kiln hydrophone. Click here to listen to hydrophone recordings of the Southern Residents.
How long can orcas hold their breath? Orcas usually have a diving pattern where they take several shallow dives of less than a minute, followed by a deeper dive where they stay submerged longer. They will generally surface to breathe after 3-5 minutes on these deeper dives, but can hold their breath for up to 15 minutes or more on occasion.
How deep can orcas dive? Studies with tagged whales have shown that they regularly dive down to 800 feet in the Salish Sea.
How fast can orcas travel? Orcas travel at an average rate of 3 to 4 miles per hour. They slow down when resting and at a sprint can reach a speed of up to 30 miles per hour.
When and how do orcas sleep? Orcas take resting breaks throughout the day and night, between intervals of feeding, socializing, and traveling. Usually the entire pod will go into a sleep pattern for 1-6 hours. When sleeping, they swim slowly and come together in a tight group, synchronizing their respirations. All marine mammals have to make a decision to breathe so they cannot completely sleep as people can. Research has shown that dolphins have the ability to shut down half of their brain to rest while the other half controls their breathing and movement.
Is it true that the killer whales are declining? Southern Residents killer whales are listed as federally endangered in both the US and Canada. Just a few decades ago there were almost 100 whales in the Southern Resident population and then in the late 1990's it declined by almost 20%. Over the past several years their numbers have fluctuated.
How long do orcas live? Killer whales like humans have a very long life span. Males can live 50-60 years and females for 90 years or more. The oldest orca in the Southern Resident community Granny (J-2) was estimated to be 105 years old when she died.
How many babies does a mother orca have at a time? A female orca gives birth to one calf at an interval of 3-5 years and she may have 5-6 offspring in a lifetime.
What is the orca's gestation period? Around 16-17 months, one of the longest of any mammal.
How big are they at birth? They are approximately 7-8 feet long at birth, and weigh around 300-400 pounds.
Why are orcas around the Salish Sea? Resident orcas follow the salmon migrations because salmon is their main food source. Chinook salmon makes up 80% of their diet. This area attracts a large number of salmon each year as they travel to and from their spawning grounds in the Fraser, and Skagit Rivers.
Who is Lolita? On August 8, 1970 Lolita was traveling with her L Pod family and the rest of the Southern Resident orcas when she and the other whales were rounded up and driven into Penn Cove, Whidbey Island. Orcas were separated while anxious family members called to one another through the nets. In all, seven young whales were captured and sold and at least five drowned during the capture attempt. In September 1970, Lolita was shipped to the Miami Seaquarium where she joined a young male named Hugo, also a Southern Resident orca. They were companions until Hugo’s death in 1980. Lolita has been without an orca companion ever since.
Lolita is the only survivor of the captured Southern Resident orcas. She continues to perform daily at the Miami Seaquarium. She lives in the smallest, oldest orca tank in North America, which is shallower than her body length. When Southern Resident orcas were listed as an endangered species in 2005 Lolita was exempted. A petition to challenge that ruling was successful, and in January 2014, she was officially included in the endangered species listing. She has been shown genetically to be a member of the Southern Resident community of orcas. She still uses L Pod calls and has family members in the Salish Sea. Many people and organizations feel that Lolita should be retired to a sea pen or possibly even reunited with the rest of her pod. For more information, please go to www.orcanetwork.org