Killer Whales New Zealand
Orcinus orca (Linnaeus, 1758)
Despite its confusing name, the killer whale is actually the largest member of the dolphin family. The killer whale/orca (Orcinus orca) is well known and can be identified relatively easily by its distinctive black and white markings and very tall, prominent dorsal fin. They can grow up to 9 m in length, with male dorsal fins reaching higher than a metre. Orca flippers are large and paddle-shaped and overall the body is robust. They are acrobatic and are commonly seen breaching and flipper-slapping. Females and males differ in that males are longer and bulkier than females and females have smaller, more curved dorsal fins, and smaller flippers. Despite its confusing name, the killer whale/orca is actually the largest member of the dolphin family.
Where to find orca
Orca are the most widely distributed mammal on earth with the exception of humans. Its distribution is patchy however and it is more commonly seen at the poles and in cooler waters. They prefer deeper water but can be found in shallow bays and estuaries, and in inland seas. Orca can be found all throughout New Zealand’s coastline.
Orca in Picton and Wellington
Pods of orca are known to venture into Wellington Harbour throughout spring and summer looking for a unique food source (orcas in other parts of the world aren’t known to do this), but it is rare for them to stick around. They dig in the muddy sea bottom for stingrays and are often seen hearding them into the shallow water around Oriental Parade, Frank Kitts Park, and The Lagoon. Passers-by have even watched as one stingray made a frantic leap for safety onto nearby rocks, later to be assisted back into the water by a nearby observer. In Picton, they can come into the Marina looking for food. They often train their young on how to hunt for stingray in Queen Charlotte Sound and the groups of up to 25 can be observed in calm sheltered waters socializing and matting in this location. Queen Charlotte Sound is the best location in New Zealand for observing Killer Whales as the calm water give amazing viewing opportunities and E-ko small group Tours and knowledge of the area make this the place to go. With very little vessel traffic the animals relax and can be in the sound for up to 3 days.
New Zealand is home to an estimated 150–200 individuals, which travel long distances throughout the country’s coastal waters. We are beginning to understand that there are different types of orca throughout the world, and work on defining these types is currently underway. Even within New Zealand it has been proposed that there are three different types, based on observations of different food preferences. Orca are typically encountered in family groups or pods. Pods are usually formed for life and can result in the development of unique dialects.
Diet and foraging
These dolphins have an extremely diverse diet and are the only known cetaceans that regularly prey upon other marine mammals. Attacks or kills have been documented on more than 35 species, including blue whales. Fish species are also important in their diet, such as salmon, tuna, herring, cod, sharks and rays. Squid, octopus, sea birds and sea turtles are also eaten. Orca hunt cooperatively and are even known to intentionally strand themselves on beaches temporarily in order to catch seals.
Females give birth to their first calf between 11 and 16 years of age and tend to do so every five years for their 25-year reproductive life span. The gestation period is 15-18 months and calves are nursed for at least one year. Females are known to live up to 80 or 90 years. Males reach physical maturity at about 21 years and live for a maximum of 50-60 years.
Historically, orca were targeted by fishers for human consumption but no significant hunting occurs today. Nowadays, one of the greatest potential impacts is likely to be disturbance caused by vessel traffic. The presence of boats is known to disrupt the normal behaviour of these animals, particularly resting, and underwater noise may disrupt echolocation signals and other communication. As orca are at the top of the food web they are particularly susceptible to pollution via bioaccumulation (the accumulation of toxins through the food chain).
Watch Killer Whales in the Wild in New Zealand
We are big believers in wildlife staying in its natural habitat. If you have ever seen dolphins or killer whales at an aquarium, we would strongly advise seeing them where they belong – in the ocean. There are many places where you can enjoy Dolphin and whale-watching in New Zealand, Marlborough Sounds is one of the best locations because in addition to humpbacks Killer Whales are regular visitors to our waters. Read More
We pride ourselves on being one of New Zealand’s premier whale watching companies because we believe in putting the welfare of the wildlife at the heart of everything we do. The name Killer Whale is actually a misnomer, as these distinctive black and white mammals are actually the largest members of the dolphin family which can grow up to 9 metres in length. New Zealand has an estimated community of around 150-200 individuals, separated into family pods. Males can live up to 60 years, while females can reach the impressive age of 90!
Whale Watching Tours in New Zealand: All About Killer Whales – Habits, Diet and Threats
So when can you see whales in New Zealand? Sightings of any wildlife cannot be guaranteed but, in this area, orcas can be seen from 10 to 15 times per year, mostly in the spring and summer, and Queen Charlotte Sound Cruise is a preferred feeding ground for when the adults initiate their offspring into hunting for stingray. Their diet can be quite varied with killer whales collaboratively hunting over 35 species, including blue whales. Pods have been known to actually enter Wellington Harbour and Picton Marina scouting for food; but to see them in the best conditions, we would strongly recommend that you do our Motuara Island Dolphin and Wildlife Tour to get the best experience.
While there are many companies offering Dolphin and whale watching tours New Zealand-wide, the calm waters of Queen Charlotte Sound mean the animals can relax into their natural behaviours. The low density of traffic in this area means the minimum disruption for the pods. Indeed, one of the main threats which orcas face is noise pollution, which interferes with their echolocation capabilities and inhibits them from resting, feeding, and socialising in a normal way.
The Best Whale Watching Tours in New Zealand
Our knowledgeable guides and expert skipper will ensure when you go dolphin and whale watching in Marlborough Sounds NZ, you will have an enjoyable and informative experience with a “no sea-sickness guarantee”. Queen Charlotte Sound’s sheltered waters and E-Ko Tours stable catamaran mean a smooth ride, so you can relax and fully immerse yourself in the wildlife viewing experience. We limit numbers on all our tours especially whale island tours, endangered species tour, and wildlife photography tours because we believe this is much less intrusive for the animals we are viewing, and a far more pleasant experience for our guests.
Contrast this with some of the open ocean nature tours in NZ where people are packed onto an enclosed space on a boat, and where the swell can induce nausea, making the experience far less enjoyable for all concerned.
When you book with E-Ko Tours rather than one of the more commercial dolphin and whale watching companies, you will also be supporting conservation work so that future generations can enjoy the glorious scenery and fascinating wildlife which call our waters home. If you want a quality experience when you go wildlife and whale watching in New Zealand, book with E-Ko Tours. You’ll have an unforgettable experience and help conserve nature at the same time! Read less