Orcas! Oh my!!

Orcas, also known as killer whales, are not very frequent visitors to the Azores, but when they do appear, the excitement is palpable. These iconic animals are the largest member of the dolphin family, reaching up to 10m. With their striking black and white coloration and the impressive dorsal fins of the males, orcas are instantly recognizable. They are often called killer whales, probably from a mis-translation of what should have been whale killers, if the marine mammal killing orcas were the first ones observed. Who knows, in a alternate reality, maybe they are called ray killers or salmon killers!

They possess complex social structures and exhibit sophisticated hunting techniques, often working together in coordinated groups. They live in family pods, typically composed of several generations of related individuals, demonstrate cooperative behavior and effective communication, allowing them to thrive in various marine environments. Orcas are matrilineal, meaning that the older females are the ones leading the group and showing the younger animals behaviors necessary to survive.

There are several “types” of orcas and each type specializes on certain types of prey. So one type will eat salmon, while others are focused on rays or sharks, some are seal specialists and others predate on marine mammals. Pods have even been seen attacking large baleen whales in coordinated attacks. One very well documented hunt off the California coast is the orcas attacking gray whale calves when they are just a few months old on their first migration between the breeding and the feeding grounds.

The orcas in the Azores have been documented eating fish on several occasions. There have also been reports of orcas harassing a fin whale near Sao Miguel and there was evidence (a dorsal fin found floating at the surface) that orcas had killed a beaked or pilot whale to the South of Pico earlier this year. There are likely a few different groups of orcas that pass through the islands. The orcas seen here may not be specialists, it is possible that they eat both fish and marine mammals, but only future encounters will confirm this.

We have 2 individuals that have been photographed in the Azores that have been seen off of Spain. We share photos with people in Norway and Iceland too, trying to work out where “our” orcas go when they aren’t here, which is most of the time!! We know that some of the pods seen in the Faial/Pico area have been photographed in Sao Miguel too. One of the males, from the most recent sighting of 2 males traveling north of Faial, had been seen last year.

So we need more sightings of these amazing animals to work out what is going on!

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