September 26, 2010

Happy Birthday, “Shamu”

On this day in 1985, the first orca to be born in captivity and survive took her first breath. She was named Kalina, but when she grew up and performed in the Sea World show, she was called the stage name Shamu. (Of course, there have been lots and lots of Shamus!)

Orcas are sometimes called killer whales because they kill and eat other marine mammals such as seals and porpoises.

Actually, only some orcas hunt marine mammals. This summer I went whale watching off of Washington state's islands, and our group saw three orcas that are called “transient”: they travel around a lot and always eat mammals. While we were watching these orcas, they surrounded and ate a seal and, later, a harbor porpoise!!! (Luckily, the messiness and blood I assume was involved in this hunt were all underwater, hidden from our sight by the churning waves the orcas created as they circled their prey.)

Later in the whale watch, we saw a huge pod of orcas that are called “residents” because they always stay near their particular home island. And they don't eat marine mammals—they only eat salmon!

These salmon-eating orcas showed off a lot, and I decided that watching them was like watching a Shamu show at Sea World. Various orcas flipped up their flukes (tails) or their pectoral flippers, and several breached, which means that they leapt out of the water and let themselves slam down again.

Of course, in some ways the experience was really different than watching a show. By law we had to watch from a respectful (safe) distance, so we were watching through binoculars. And of course, there was no trainer telling us where to watch or what to expect. I cannot tell you how absolutely more thrilling it is to see these behaviors in the wild!!!!

Learn more about orcas!

National Geographic has a Creature Feature starring orcas. 

Here is a coloring page.

Here is a really hard (but free) vidoe game. Notice that this orca eats small fish rather than seals, smaller whales, and large fish like salmon. Hmmm...not very realistic!

On a more serious note, here is an interesting but complex lesson plan discussing the environmental degradation dangers faced by orcas. 

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