Swimming with the Pod
by Catherine Ripley, art by Diane Blasius
PFFFFF! Splash! A six-year-old male orca whale surfaces, shooting a big spray of stale air from the blowhole on top of his head. For several minutes he and his family slice slowly through the ocean waves, breathing deeply, filling their large lungs with air. Then, side by side, the orcas dive.
The male is the youngest and swims close to his mom. To their left is his uncle and in front, leading them all, is his grandmother. A second uncle swims nearby. And just beyond him are two more families in the pod, which is the name for a group of whales. The 16 whales in this pod live together in Johnstone Strait, on the northwest coast of Canada.
Most orcas stay with the pod they are born into for their whole lives. As an infant, the young male swam beneath his mother's belly, where he was safe and could nurse easily. When he was born, his mother probably helped him to the surface to take his first breath. Whales need air, just like people, or they will drown. Sometimes the pod might even help an injured whale come up to the surface for air.
When orcas are not searching for food, they like to “talk” and socialize—even play! They roll and splash in the salty water, and they call to each other. Scr-eee-CH! Whistle! Whistle!
The young male spyhops. He punches his head and upper body above the water and looks around. He sees a female cousin breach the waves. She throws her body almost completely out of the water and crashes down again. KERSPLASH! Another cousin swims sideways and smacks her flipper playfully against the water. SLAP!
Now Grandmother is speeding toward shore and the family follows. She rubs her massive body through the smooth rounded rocks on the bottom of the bay. Mom goes next and the young male follows. The family spends the next hour “beach rubbing.” Scientists think this feels good to orcas and may help keep their skin clean.
But most of the pod's day is spent finding food. The whales spread out and send out a series of fast clicks as they swim down the bay together. Click, click, click! The orcas can tell from the way their clicks echo through the water if a school of salmon is nearby!
But the young male's pod eats mainly salmon. The whales use many calls to stay in touch as they hunt. “Wee-oo-uuo,” cries a cousin from across the bay. “Wee-oo-uuo,” answers Grandmother. “Squ-eee-AL, CRe-e-e-eak,” calls Mom. Each pod “speaks” slightly differently from the next, and scientists can recognize a particular pod by the sounds its whales make.
Soon the orcas' bellies are tight with salmon. It is time for a rest. Orcas cannot sleep under the water. They must come to the surface every few minutes to breathe. So they cruise slowly forward, diving, then surfacing for air, in a regular resting pattern that can last for hours. Swimming together, the young whale and his family surface, breathe, and dive…surface, breathe, and dive…ZZZZZZ!
- breach: To break through.
- hunt: To look for something.
- prey: An animal that is hunted by another animal for food.
- stale: Not fresh.
- What do orca whales come to the ocean surface to do?
- What would happen if an orca did not come to the surface of the ocean for a very long time? Why?
- Where do these orcas live?
- What might happen to the orcas if the air in the Johnstone Strait were polluted?