Unbelievable Nature: The Orca

Can you believe how much things have changed since our last ‘Unbelievable Nature’ post? It was the second week in March and we were all talking about COVID-19 but going about our business fairly normally. Two days later, on the 11th March, the World Health Organisation declared the virus as a global pandemic. In our lifetime, perhaps the most serious pandemic to affect humanity was the transfer of HIV/AIDS from a chimpanzee in West Africa and took 50 years to reach New York and San Francisco in the 1970’s. The biggest lesson we all need to learn from the current and indeed all pandemics, is that humans do not live in isolation from nature. We are all part of the web of life. Interconnected and without prejudice we are one and the same.

And so we continue with our Unbelievable Nature series. Our first article focussed on the obscenely cute and forever smiling quokka. In this article Leigh, our Product Design Manager and enthusiastic diver is taking us on a journey into the ocean as we go for a swim alongside the outstanding majesty of the orca. Take a breath and let your mind wander to the ocean. We hope you're taking this time to be alone with yourself and practice some self care today.

The Orca, killer whale

The orca, or killer whale, is technically the largest member of the oceanic dolphin family, with some males reaching up to 8 metres in length and exceeding 6 tonnes in weight. Their distinctive dorsal fin can reach heights of up to 1.8 metres in length and should stand straight. Their characteristic colouring is hard to miss. Stunning jet black for the most part with a white underside which pulls up onto each side of the rear section of the animal. A distinctive white

patch rests behind the eyes and a beautiful grey nestles behind the dorsal fin. There are many theories as to these unique colourations on the cetacean, from breaking up their outline underwater so they aren’t identified by potential prey, to acting as false targets in case of attack.

Orca family

Orcas are renowned for their strong family units, known as pods. They are social creatures and can recognise members of their own family by sound, even when separated. These family units will hunt together, employing smart techniques to capture prey. Perhaps most famously, they will line up and generate waves to knock a seal from a floating ice sheet, or partially beach themselves to swipe prey from the shore.

Their reproductive cycles are long, with an average 17 months of pregnancy. Which is followed by an unusually long period of nursing for up to two years. For this reason, females tend to give birth approximately every five years. However, they tend to only produce one calf per pregnancy, and the mortality rate for a calf can be as high as 50%. So the overall number of offspring produced by a female successfully and reaching maturity can, sadly, be quite low over their lifespan.

Orca habitat

Orcas are found in all oceans around the world, from wide open, deep water to shorelines, and from the equator to the polar regions. They are apex predators and are able to successfully hunt in all of these locations due to their particularly diverse diets, from fish and seals to seabirds and even other whales.

Species of orca and survival

Although previously considered only one species, over the last decade or two there has been much debate over the potential variation in species, or subspecies, of this incredible creature. As it stands, Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) acknowledges ten different “ecotypes” of orca. These ecotypes have distinct differences in many aspects including size, prey preference, behaviour, even dialect. The ecotypes may be found in the same areas but they rarely interact with other ecotypes they cross paths with and are genetically different. For this reason, the species does not have a rating on the IUCN Red List and are classed as ‘data deficient’, as there is not enough data on each ecotype to determine the risk of extinction.

Being apex predators, the main threat to orcas is….yes you’ve guessed it, humans. Ingested pollution, typically plastic, has led to the loss of a number of whales in recent years. Additionally, whales are being caught in fishing nets, either deployed nets or ghost nets, causing severe injury by cutting into their skin, wrapping around their fins or flute, restricting movement or even drowning them. A third human induced death is caused by ships striking orca whales, as a result of the increases in transporting goods by sea.

Although small in numbers, wild-caught orca for use in captivity have also impacted some pods, with just under half of the approximated 60 orca in captivity in 2019 having been wild-caught. This is devastating.

Are we in this together?

As we said at the beginning of the article, we do not live in isolation. The human race is part of a delicate equilibrum with serious implications for human and animal life if we do not get to grips with how we live our lives.

Now, over half of us live in an urban environment. My home, too, is here in the city of London. Looking down on this great metropolis, the ingenuity with which we continue to reshape the surface of our planet is very striking. It’s also very sobering, and reminds me of just how easy it is for us to lose our connection with the natural world. Yet it’s on this connection that the future of both humanity and the natural world will depend. And surely, it is our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on Earth.” ― David Attenborough

The current situation shows us that we have the power to be ‘in this together’ when we really have to be. Climate change and the destruction of the planet has to be treated as if it too were a virus. If we humans can come together to reinvent how we live, work, travel and socialise, then maybe we’ll all have a chance of breathing more easily everyday.  And the distinctive, intelligent, beautiful orca whale will have a greater survival rate, allowing scientists and conservationists to study their uniqueness in deeper depth.