Did you ever wonder where the best places to swim or dive with Orcas are? We collected all the information you need to be ready for your orca expedition.
When you hear the word killer whale, you immediately imagine a vicious hunter in your head, fearsome and evil.
However, these animals are not what many people think. Get to know the beautiful and smart king of the sea, the Orca!
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What do Orcas look like?
The appearance of orcas is very characteristic: large, black bodies, white undersides, white patches above and behind the eyes and a grey “saddle patch” behind the dorsal fin.
Males are up to ten meters long, larger than females, and have a high towering dorsal fin that can reach up to two meters in length.
This high, sword-shaped, and conspicuous fin makes them practically unmistakable. Females are about a fifth smaller and their dorsal fin is not even half as high as that of males.
Orcas live in family groups (pods) of up to 50 individuals, sometimes including four generations. The oldest female leads the group. She knows best where to find good food and how to best behave in different situations.
As an orca, you need to learn a wide range of skills: sophisticated hunting techniques, social interaction, knowledge of feeding and mating areas, and a thorough knowledge of migration routes. The adult orcas teach the youngest ones these skills so that they can later pass them on to their own offspring. In this way, an “orca culture” is created which is passed on from generation to generation.
Orcas hunt in groups and coordinate their preys with incredible skill. They eat a variety of prey including fish, seals, dolphins, sharks, rays, whales, octopuses and squid. However, some groups specialise in only one type of prey, such as hunting seals and other marine mammals, while others prefer certain types of salmon and have adapted their hunting techniques to this prey over generations.
Where does the name Killer Whale come from?
Killer whales are the largest specimens of the dolphin family. There are different explanations why Orcas have been named like this.
One explanation is that they have been given the name “killer” or “killer whale” because unbelievable quantities of devoured animals have been found in stranded or dead killer whales.
Another is that, they were seen to hunt other whales, hence “killing whales”.
The orca is also a toothed whale and has a fearsome set of teeth, which consists of forty strong, dense teeth.
Nevertheless, the term killer whale is not correct. Because killer whales do not attack animals or people indiscriminately, but only kill to feed.
Killer whales feed on shoals of fish, but also on squid, squid, birds or smaller whales and seals. Often killer whales go hunting together and then share the prey among themselves.
Killer whales live in all oceans, especially in the cold regions of the Arctic and Antarctic. They are considered the health police of the sea, as they also eat sick and weak animals. Killer whales weigh between three and nine tons.
They are excellent swimmers and can reach speeds of up to 50 kilometers per hour.
Apart from humans, orcas have no enemies, nowhere, orcas are the top predators of the oceans, and they are at the top of the food chain. Worldwide. If the Arctic ice continues to retreat and polar bears are forced to spend more time in the water, orcas could even become dangerous to them, the largest and strongest predators on land.
What you need to know about Orcas
Killer whales or Orcinus Orca are a type of toothed oceanic dolphin belonging to the Delpinidae family, a family of whales. They are found in all oceans, from the icy Antarctic and Atlantic to the sultry tropical oceans.
They are abundant in all oceans but seem to prefer coastal and higher latitudes to the pelagic environment. Killer whales are apex predators, which means that they are at the top of the food chain and have no natural predators of their own.
They have a varied diet, although it is difficult for them to feed on fish, sharks, squid, gulls, turtles, penguins and marine mammals such as seals, sea lions, walruses and even other whales. The whales do not hunt humans, but they can hurt them in handling. Killer whales lead an extremely social life. They are matrilineal, a trait not common in marine animals, meaning that a family group consists of a mother whale, her offspring and usually a third generation. They pass on their particular behavior and hunting methods to other generations.
A killer whale has a black back with a white breast and white spots above and behind the eye. The body is robust with a 6.6-foot long dorsal fin. The whale’s teeth are strong and covered with hard enamel. The jaws are extremely strong and help to catch prey in a powerful grip. Male killer whales are generally larger than female whales.
How much do Orcas weigh/ How big are Orcas? A typical male is 6 to 8 meters long and weighs 6 tons, while a female is 5 to 7 meters long and weighs 4 tons.
How fast can an Orca swim? Killer whales are one of the fastest marine animals due to their high strength and robust body with a speed of 56 kilometers per hour.
These whales are very sensitive; they have great vision both below and above the water surface, amazing hearing, and an impressive sense of touch. They have a remarkable echolocation capacity. They locate specific places and prey by listening to the echoes and interacting by clicking on sounds.
They breed in warmer climates at the beginning of spring. Their gestation period is 16 to 17 months. Calves are usually born in October and May. The calf is about 3 meters long and can swim alongside the mother whale within half an hour of birth. The calves have an orange to yellow hue at the beginning, which diminishes. The mother whale and the midwives care for the calves until they can look after themselves.
How Long do Orcas live? Their average life span is between 40 and 60 years.
Orcas have specific behavioral patterns such as breaking through, spying, slapping and other acrobatic movements that allow them to communicate, play, advertise, search for prey and drive out parasites
Is it safe to swim or dive with Orcas?
Yes, however, you have to be very cautious, because they are still wild animals and need attention all the time. Orcas owe their name “killer whale” to the early whalers Because they apparently attacked and killed all other animals, even the largest whales. Even whalers were afraid of orcas.
Wrongly so, because not a single attack on humans has been documented in the wild to date. Orcas only seem to become dangerous for humans when they are locked up in an aquarium separated from their family for years.
Killer whales are extremely successful hunters, using very specific, sophisticated hunting techniques. They are highly intelligent animals with close social ties and no natural enemies. They are undisputedly at the top of the marine food chain.
Also check out: Orca vs Great White Shark.
It is certainly not because of their abilities that there has never been a traditional attack on a human being in the wild. Humans probably do not belong in their prey scheme and presumably, they recognize the difference between humans and prey thanks to their intelligence.
The current status of the Orca population is unknown or titled “data insufficient” on the IUCN Red List.
Orcas live in fixed families that stay together for a lifetime, children, grandchildren, grandparents, aunts. These families are called schools or pods. Sometimes several related schools come together and form large groups (clans) of up to 150 animals.
These clans even develop their own dialects and hunting habits, through which they can be clearly distinguished from each other.
Individual clans seem to specialize in a certain kind of prey – fish, seals, whales – other possible prey is even ignored. Often several pods cooperate in the hunt, sometimes other whales join in for a short time, apparently without any fear. The hunting strategies of orcas are extremely variable:
In Norway and Iceland, schools of orcas herring drift together to form a large ball, which they constantly circle around or enclose with a wall of air bubbles. They then stun individual fish with a stroke of their fluke and peck them out.
How many Orcas are left? According to the NOAA, It is estimated that there are around 50,000 killer whales globally. Approximately 2,500 killer whales live in the eastern North Pacific Ocean—home to the most well-studied killer whale populations.
Where do Orcas live?
Killer whales are at home in all oceans. They can be found both in the tropics and in Antarctica. However, they are most commonly found in cold, temperate coastal waters.
Where is Orca Island? Orcas Island (/ˈɔːrkəs/) is the largest of the San Juan Islands of the Pacific Northwest, which are located in the northwestern corner of Washington state in San Juan County, Washington, United States. Magnificent orca (or killer) whales live in the San Juan Islands year-round, and this is the best place in the world to see them in the wild.
It prefers the Arctic (the area around the North Pole) and Antarctic (area around the South Pole) seas. There it lives within 800 km of the polar caps in coastal waters and bays. The orca can also be found in the European Atlantic Ocean.
Here it is mostly in the herring-rich seas around Iceland and off Norway. Orcas have also been observed in the western Mediterranean, in the North Sea, and dozens of times in the Baltic Sea.
Since these whales live almost exclusively in cold waters, their bodies are wrapped in a thick layer of bacon called “bubbles”. This blubber serves them as a protection against the cold, as an energy store and as an aid when surfacing.
Best Places to Swim or Dive with Orcas
There are many places in the world where Orca sights are recorded. However, there are only a few places where you can really swim or dive with an Orca.
Remember that these huge mammals, although it is not known that they attack people without provocation, are predators, and caution should be exercised when diving or snorkeling.
#1 Swim with Orcas in Norway
One of the best places to swim with Orcas is the wintery northern Norway, where large quantities of herring gather.
Hundreds or even thousands of whales gather here to hunt. A special natural spectacle – but one that can be challenging due to cold air and water temperatures, snow, ice, little daylight and swell.
The cold and crystal clear fjord water is a perfect place to observe orcas pods. A large number of mammals have been seen, sometimes in pods of 200 or more.
Best Time to Go
Basically Norway is a great destination for nature lovers all year round.
However, if you want to watch the orcas at close range during their spectacular hunt, the best time to travel is between October and February.
Temperatures can vary greatly, ranging from well above freezing to freezing cold.
In the Norwegian winter, the dark nights return, and so the best time to see the unique northern lights is from late September to late March.
Best Tour Operators
Check the best Orca Tours with our trusted eco-friendly partners in Norway:
About the trip
Orca expeditions are a spectacular program in Norway. Huge shoals of herring gather in the fjords to spend the winter, attracting “the big ones”.
To be in a boat between 200-300 orcas hunting in cooperation with humpback whales is simply fantastic. About 450 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, is the ideal starting point for whale watching. In constant contact with local researchers, every year the Orca Camps’ locations are adapted to the migratory route of the herring.
The orcas follow the herring during their migration along Norway’s coasts. One camp in 2018 was located in Kvaløyvågen and then moved with the orcas about 100 kilometres further north to the island of Skjerøy, where the big feeding took place the year before.
Local researchers suspect that the herring migration has shifted and they have now chosen the fjords further north to move into shallow waters with the October full moon.
In January the camp follows the herrings again southwards to the island of Kvaloya. What happens far in the north in the fjords of Norway can hardly be described. On some days during the last tours more than 200 orcas and over 100 humpback whales could be observed.
In front of the harbour mole of the accommodation there were ten humpback whales, which came out of the water in bubble net-feeding right in front of their “spectators”, accompanied by thousands of jumping herring, which were fleeing from the whales.
The group of humpback whales was surrounded by about 30 orcas, as the two species of whale cooperate here in hunting. On clear nights and under a sensational sky, filled with the most beautiful colours of the northern lights, one feels like on another planet.
Canada is a real paradise for fans of the sea giants. Especially off the coast of Vancouver Island the animals are regularly seen, but there are also several other locations that are perfect for whale watching.
All tours are carried out by our reliable local partners – you only have to decide whether a few hours are enough or whether you prefer to spend several days whale watching.
Best Time to Go
Whale watching season is between May and September and the whales can be observed from the coast or from a boat or sea kayak.
#3 Swim with Orcas in New Zealand
New Zealand is one of the best places in the world to watch sperm whales all year round.
There are also many different species of dolphins living here, occasionally orcas and other large whales can be seen.
However, Orca sightings are not as usual in New Zealand compared to Norway.
Auckland is lucky enough to have whales right on its doorstep in the beautiful Hauraki Gulf Marine Park. The 4,000 square kilometer Hauraki Gulf is part of the Pacific Ocean and surrounds the regions of Auckland and Coromandel.
The Hauraki Gulf sanctuary is home to countless rare and exotic marine animals. The endangered Bryde’s whale is just one of many species. Incredibly, more than 25 of the 37 marine mammals native to the southern hemisphere have already been observed in the area, making up over a third of the world population of these species.
Kaikoura, on the east coast of the South Island, is one of the few places in the world where you can easily spot sperm whales.
Sperm whales are the largest toothed whales and grow up to 15 meters long. To hunt for food they dive deep into the ocean. The native sperm whale population of Kaikoura can be observed all year round.
Best Time to Go
June and July are the time for orcas (killer whales) and from December to March, you can see humpback whales. In addition, different species of dolphins are sighted daily.
Whales are attracted to the waters off Kaikoura because of the unusual underwater landscape. The continental shelf quickly falls into a series of deep-sea trenches. In addition, a warm current from the north meets a cold current from the south.
This sweeps nutrients up from the ocean depths, a phenomenon that benefits all kinds of marine life, from plankton and krill to dolphins and whales.
#4 Costa Rica
Orcas are also increasingly being observed near Costa Rica – a small sensation because these beautiful animals prefer colder waters.
Killer whales migrate abundantly into warmer, temperate waters on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The southeastern side of Isle de Coco, Drake Bay, the Gulf of Papagayo, and parks such as Ballena National Marine Park, Cabo Blanco Marine Rerserve and Cahuito National Park are hotspots for watching killer whales that break and sing.
The Osa Peninsula boasts many whales, including killer whales. In the southern part of the Pacific coast there are many orca whales in a shelf-like oceanic area called The Dome. On the Nicoya Peninsula, in Guanacaste and in Puntarenas there are numerous dive sites where divers can observe a pack of whales and hundreds of other marine animals.
Tambor Bay, Cabuya Island and Tortuga Island offer many snorkeling and diving sites. The water is clear and warm and a variety of marine life is visible, including killer whales!
Best Time to Go
So the months between August and April are the best time to go whale watching.
This is mainly due to the mating habits of humpback whales from the southern and northern hemispheres, both of which stop at Costa Rica’s coasts. For this reason, Costa Rica also has the longest humpback whale season in the world.
Between December and April, there are relatively frequent sightings of whale mothers with their babies. During this time they teach their young everything they need to know and suckle them with their particularly nutritious mother’s milk.
The babies are very playful and sometimes you can watch them hitting the water surface with their flukes or even try their first jumps. Humpback whales are most frequently observed, as they are mainly found on the water surface and near the coasts.
Why you shouldn’t go to Sea Life or other oceanic parks
We are sure that the whales will always prefer the open sea to any enclosure – the tanks they are living in now and those you are still planning to build, no matter how big they may be.
They want the life they were born to live or life as close as possible to it. Why would they want anything other than a habitat that resembles their actual home in the ocean? And in which tiny basins will they be confined while the construction of the larger basins continues?
SeaWorld San Diego already replaced the show in 2017 with the “Orca Encounter”. The park in San Antonio, Texas, will be the last one where the Orca Stunt Show will still exist. But even there it is to be abolished in the medium term. But for critics, the end of the “One Ocean” shows is only a small consolation. Whether for entertainment or educational purposes – orcas do not belong in captivity. In Canada, for example, the keeping and breeding of whales and dolphins have been banned since this year.
For the 29 orcas currently still living in SeaWorld Parks, however, there is no other option: they must remain in captivity because they would not be able to survive in the sea. Therefore, according to SeaWorld, it is not possible to release the animals into the wild.
In recent years, SeaWorld Parks have been the subject of much criticism. In 2012 the journalist David Kirby caused a sensation with his book “Death at Sea World: Shamu and the dark side of the killer whales in captivity”. One year later the documentary “Blackfish” was released, in which a former SeaWorld whale trainer showed the torments orcas have to suffer in captivity.
The documentary was also based on a death at SeaWorld Orlando: in 2010, the experienced orca trainer Dawn Brancheau died there. She was killed by the Orca Tilikum in front of numerous spectators.
Summary of Where to Dive with Orcas
Orcas are incredible animals to see in the wild. Norway definitely is a prime spot for seeing them. However, you might also get lucky to see Orcas in New Zealand, Costa Rica or Canada.
Other two very unusual mammals in the oceans and even rivers are Dugongs and Manatees. Go on and have a look at our articles Where to see Manatees and Dugongs, our guide to blue whale sightings, and our ultimate overview to whale watching!
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