Scientific Name: Orcinus orca
When is the best time to view Orcas in Monterey Bay and where is the best viewing?
Orcas are temporary inhabitants of Monterey Bay and migrate continuously along the coast of western North America. Orcas, also known as killer whales, are sighted in the sanctuary year-round with 2-5 unpredictable sightings each month.
They are spotted in Monterey Bay from January through May and from September through November. April, May and June are the most common months to find Orcas in the bay, while they feed on northbound migrating Gray Whales.
As Orcas prefer open water, the most likely way to see killer whales in Monterey Bay is from a boat. There are many whale watching tours available from Monterey or Moss Landing.
Orcas, also known as killer whales, are toothed members of the Delphinidae family and are more closely related to dolphins than whales. Orcas are called killer whales because they feed on other marine mammals, not because they kill humans. Orcas can swim up to speeds of 35 miles per hour, making them one of the world’s fastest moving marine mammals.
Distinctive jet-black backs, white chests and sides, and a small white patch above each eye make killer whales easily identifiable. The male’s dorsal fin can grow up to 6 feet long, sometimes twice as long as the female’s dorsal fin. Behind the dorsal fin, there is a “saddle-patch” of unique light-colored markings to each orca.
Killer whales are highly social and intelligent creatures. Orcas travel in groups called pods with up to 40 individuals. Each pod makes its own specific clicking sound, allowing members of the pod to easily recognize each other. Orcas and pilot whales are the only nonhuman species in which females go through menopause and live for decades after they stop reproducing. Because females can reach age 90, many generations travel together. Killer whale pods are based on the lineage of the mother with daughters and sons remaining in the pod for a lifetime. Adult females are instrumental in raising younger generations.
Orcas are found in oceans worldwide. However, there are three distinct types of killer whales found along the Pacific Coast: transients, residents and offshore. Most killer whales observed in Monterey Bay are “transient” whales. “Transient” whales typically prey on marine mammals such as harbor seals or sea lions. It is estimated that close to 200 “transient” orcas reside off the California coast. In comparison, “resident” killer whale populations such as those residing along the Washington and Alaska coastlines prefer to prey on fish with 70% of their diet consisting of chinook salmon.
Orca Fun Facts
- Orcas can swim up to 35 mph
- Orcas hunt as a pack earning them the nickname “sea wolves”
- Each tooth can be four inches long
- Orcas use echolocation to communicate and hunt
- Eat up to 5% of their body weight daily - that's over 500 pounds of food!
- Spend 60% of their life foraging for food
- Most male Orcas live their entire life with their mothers
Habitat: cooler coastal waters, inshore and offshore
Length: 23–32 feet
Weight: average 7.5 tons but may weigh up to 11 tons (22,000 lbs.)
Diet: fish, squid, seabirds, seals, sea lions, dolphins and whales
Lifespan: 50–90 years
Reproduction: 17-month gestation; Female Orcas give birth about every 5 years