Polar expeditions are characterised by the thrill of exploring some of the world’s most remote landscapes and encountering majestic animals that few ever get the chance to see in the wild. The wildlife will differ vastly depending on the destination, but one animal that can be seen throughout the polar regions is the ever-impressive Orca. Known for their distinctive black and white markings as well as for their deadly efficiency, they are one of the ocean’s most successfully adapted apex predators. But despite their fame, the average person knows very little about these highly intelligent, social creatures. To learn more about their amazing adaptations, read on.
Orcas are commonly known as Killer Whales, and their efficiency as hunters has certainly earned them a reputation, known to eat everything from fish to other cetaceans. But what is more interesting is just how well primed they are by evolution for their role as predators. The very characteristics that make them stand out to wildlife-watchers on polar expeditions – including their shape and colouring – are some of their most valuable tools. Their highly streamlined bodies and powerful tails contribute to their status as the fastest animals in the sea, while their thick layer of blubber smoothes their contours, thus increasing speed, and allowing them to retain body heat in even the coldest of waters. Combined with their ability to slow their heartbeat and conserve oxygen, and thus stay underwater for longer, these features mean they are able to range far and deep, with the speed and tenacity necessary to pursue almost any prey in the water. Orcas are also countershaded, meaning that their stark black-and-white colouration lets them blend in with the dark ocean when viewed from above, and with the bright surface when viewed from below.
Working as a Team
As well as physical adaptations, Orcas have developed skills that add to their predatory prowess, in particular their group hunting techniques. While small prey might be pursued by an individual Orca, larger animals, or smaller animals that travel in large groups, will often be hunted by a group – for example, in the technique known as ‘carousel feeding’ in which schools of fish are herded into tight spaces by streams of bubbles that the Orcas release; the tightly-packed fish can then be stunned with a slap from an Orca’s tail. Another sophisticated technique that has been observed in the Antarctic by scientists on polar expeditions is ‘wave washing’, in which several Orcas work together to create waves strong enough to wash other creatures off ice floes and into the sea.
It is perhaps not surprising that they have become so famous for their hunting skills, but it should be remembered that Orcas are also highly intelligent, social, inquisitive animals – as anyone who observes them on polar expeditions will be able to see for themselves.