whale questions

From: Howard Garrett (howard@orcanetwork.org)
Date: Thu Dec 09 2004 - 18:01:02 EST

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    >Many thanks for answering my students questions in advance. They are eager
    to get your reply.

    This'll keep me out of trouble for a while. I'll, hopefully, answer them
    one at a time.

    >From Caroline and Ellie: Do orca whales have any unique characteristics
    that are different from other whales?

    That's a doozy right there. I could go on for hours, and I have, but I'll
    try to distill it down to a bite-sized answer. According to a recently
    published paper, "The...cultures of...killer whales (Orcinus orca) appear
    to have no parallel outside humans and represent an independent evolution
    of cultural faculties." This means that while humans were evolving to live
    in complex and diversified cultural communities all over the earth, orcas
    were living in complex and diversified cultural communities all over the
    oceans. Each orca knows it is a member of a family and community, and knows
    how to act as a member of its community, and knows that other orcas live in
    entirely different communities, using different languages, eating different
    diets, acting according to different rules that govern every aspect of
    life, just like humans. This may seem shocking, and it hasn't yet been
    understood by many people, but the science is there to back it up. If you
    would like to see it, you can start with
    www.orcanetwork.org/nathist/scifield.html#rendell. Other cetacean species
    may have similar abilities, but orcas have been better studied so more is
    known about them.

    >What do orcas eat?

    Well...that depends of which orca community we are talking about. In the
    Pacific Northwest, we have two communities, called residents and
    transients. The residents eat only fish and squid, and never eat marine
    mammals. The transients eat only marine mammals, and never eat fish or
    squid. Biologically orcas can eat anything they want to in the ocean, but
    culturally each community is limited to a certain diet. Some eat sharks,
    some eat sting rays, some eat toothfish, some eat seals, some eat whales,
    some eat herring, some eat salmon, etc.

    How long is an orca whale?

    Sorry to keep coming back to it, but different communities of orcas are
    different sizes. Since they don't interbreed with other communities, each
    community is gradually becoming a different species, and there are possibly
    20 or 30 communities worldwide. North Atlantic orcas are generally smaller
    (females are around 18-20 feet long, males are about 23 or 24 feet long),
    while other orcas in the North Pacific are larger (females are about 24
    feet long, and males are about 26-28 feet). There is much variation within
    communities as well.

    >From Quincy and Emily: Can an orca swim as fast as a motor boat?

    Orcas can swim about 30 knots, which is as fast as most motor boats.

    >Can an orca eat a blue whale?

    Some orcas eat parts of blue whales, especially the lips and tongue and
    soft belly parts.

    >How long would it take?

    It may take almost a day to kill and eat a blue whale. Usually they
    separate a calf from its mother first, which may take several hours. Then
    the killing and feasting may go on for several more hours.

    >What is the lifespan of an orca?

    According to studies done on two communities of orcas in the Pacific
    Northwest between 1974 and 1987, females average about 50 years and may
    live to over 90, and males average about 30 years and may live to over 60.

    >From Allie and Jabari: What is the orca's habitat like?

    Orcas can and do live anywhere in the world's oceans. Each community
    (sorry) determines its own habitat. They usually dive to around 600 feet
    and they usually travel about 100 miles a day. So an orca's habitat needs
    to be at least several hundred miles wide and several hundred feet deep,
    and full of its preferred food. Compare that with the display pools that
    captive orcas must live in.

    >Do orca whales ever eat their babies?

    I don't think so.

    >From Jeff and Mikayla: How many orca whales have you seen in a pod and why
    do they travel together?

    Sometimes all the pods of a community will come together for a short while.
    I've seen about a hundred orcas together at one time. The pod members
    travel together because if they travelled apart they might have trouble
    finding each other again. Whales have no nest or den to return to, so they
    have to always keep in contact, usually by voice. Their togetherness is
    their home (which is the title of a book written by a friend of mine).

    >How long can a humpback's song last?

    Humpback songs usually last around 15-20 minutes.

    >From Sarah and Alexander: Why are orcas a part of the whale family and the
    dolphin family?

    Our popular language is not the same as our scientific language when it
    comes to whales. In fact there is no real definition of the word "whale" in
    scientific language. Orcas are bigger than other dolphins, so we call them
    whales, but they evolved from ancestors that were dolphins about 14 million
    years ago, so they are part of the dolphin family, scientifically.

    >From Hannah and Sam: How long was the bigest orca whale that you have ever

    There's a 53 year-old male called J1, or Ruffles, who is probably about 28
    feet long. He was seen today in fact, just a few miles from Seattle.

    >How do orcas eat?

    If orcas are eating fish, they grab them and swallow them, sometimes
    shaking the heads off big salmon before they swallow. If they are eating
    marine mammals like seals or porpoises they sometimes rip them into bits,
    which takes two orcas. Then they share the bits with the other members of
    the pod. If they are eating stingrays, they sometimes toss them like
    frisbees to kill them, or maybe they're just playing with their food.

    >From: Matt P. and Lily: Have you ever swum with Lolita?

    No, that would not be allowed by the management of the marine park.

    >From Alison S., Will, and Jamie: What got you into studying whales?

    In 1980 I came out to Washington to help do field research on orcas, and I
    became so curious about them I couldn't stop.

    >How many orcas have you seen?

    See the question above from Jeff and Mikayla.

    >From Julie and Peter S.: Have you ever seen a killer whale hurt another

    I've never seen it, but I've heard lots of stories. But orcas almost never
    hurt other orcas, and they've never hurt a human, except in captivity.

    >What do orcas eat?

    That depends on (you asked) which community the orcas belong to. See the
    question from Caroline and Ellie.

    How old is Lolita and how long did you care for her?

    Lolita is about 38-40 years old. I've never cared for her because I would
    have to work as a trainer to do that since she is, by law, the property of
    a marine park.

    >From Grace and Marc: How many killer whales have you released back into
    the wild?

    I've never done that. In fact very few people have, since the only killer
    whale ever released was Keiko.

    >From Peter K. and Maddie: When was the killer whale first discovered?

    I don't know when killer whales were first discovered but people have lived
    alongside them for thousands of years in parts of the world. A biologist
    named Linneaus named orcas Orcinus orca in 1758.

    >How much does an orca eat in one day?

    An adult orca eats about 150 to 250 pounds of food a day.

    >From Matt G. and Georgianna: How many orcas have you saved from stranding?

    I've never done that, but I have friends who have.

    >What will happen to Lolita when she is retired?

    If Lolita is some day returned to her home waters, she will be able to swim
    in places familiar to her and that will be healthy for her. She may also
    eventually rejoin her family, and that would also be healthy for her. She
    still calls out in the language used by her family. Orcas are always very
    social and without their families, or at least some interesting company,
    they seem to get very lonely. You can read about a lonely orca in British
    Columbia at www.reuniteluna.com.

    >We look forward to hearing from you,
    >Sue Shirley
    >Dedham Country Day School
    >Dedham, MA

    Please thank your students very much for these interesting questions.
    Obviously I enjoy talking about orcas, and these were excellent questions.

    Howard Garrett
    Orca Network
    Greenbank WA
    (360) 678-3451

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