Pender Post’s July cover features the Orca, a fitting choice as Pender Island is one of the best land-based Orca viewing areas in North America. We all recognize Orcas — large, black bodies, white under-chin and belly, a white oval “eyespot” above and slightly behind each eye, grayish markings (saddle patches) near the base of the dorsal fin, and that eye-catching dorsal fin. All the local Orcas have those characteristics, and one might think that differentiating one Orca from another would be difficult. Not so, at least not to the experienced eye. Researchers have realized that all those characteristics are presented a little differently in each Orca. • Male dorsal fins are tall (some times 6’ or more) and triangular-shaped. • Female and immature Orcas have smaller, backward curving dorsal fins. • Dorsal fins, because they are so visible, are one of the best identifiers. Some dorsal fins have unique chunks, bite mark etc. • Saddle patches, while not as visible as the dorsal fin, are unique to each animal and therefore crucial identifiers. The Southern Gulf Islands are home to two types of Orcas — Residents and Transients. The Residents are fish-eating (Chinook salmon preferred, please) and Transients dine on warm-blooded marine animals (porpoises, seals etc).

The Top Ten list of other Orca facts we should know:

  1. There are three pods (J, K, and L) of southern resident Orcas, 84 Orcas in total.

  2. Orcas are matriarchal in organization, meaning that the females “call the shots”, and both male and female Orcas tend to stay and travel with their mothers.

  3. Orcas have relatively good vision but use echolocation (similar to bats) to find their food, and to recognize the shapes and characteristics of their environment.

  4. Within a pod, whales communicate with a system of clicks and whistles and pulsed signals.

  5. Transient Orcas are far less communicative, likely because many of their traditional prey also use a form of echolocation.

  6. Adult male Orcas can weigh up to 22,000 lb (10,000 kg) and attain a length of 32 feet (10 m) .

  7. Females can weigh up to 16,500 lb (7,500 kg) and grow to 28 feet (8.5 m).Orcas are an endangered species in both Canada and the US. It is illegal to hunt or harass these animals.

  8. No boat may approach within 100 metres in Canada, and 200 yards in the US, except for licensed scientific research craft.

  9. The average lifespan of female Orcas in the wild ranges from 50 - 60 years and the males’ normal life span is 29 years, to a maximum of 50-60 years.

  10. The J Pod matriarch, designated scientifically as J2 and known familiarly as Granny, is still swimming by Pender Island regularly at the astonishing age of 103!

Apparently swimming is good for the health.

Cover photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research.

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