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The Killer Whale - Or Grampus.

 

The Killer Whale - Or Grampus.
Genus Orca.

Orca Killer Whale copyright Stan Klos
 

One of the largest, and at the same time the most ferocious, of all the dolphin family is the killer, or killer whale, frequently also known as the grampus (Orca gladiator). It is characterized as a genus by its large size, and the conical and depressed head, devoid of a beak. The back-fin is of great length, especially in the males; and the flippers are large and broadly ovate. The teeth (as shown in our figure) are comparatively few in number, varying from ten to thirteen on each side of the jaws, and are much larger than in any dolphins yet noticed, being often an inch or more in diameter, and having an oval-section. The coloration is .striking, the upper-parts and fins being black, while the lower jaw, chest, and under-parts are whitish. The white area of the under-parts does not, however, extend to the flukes, but ends posteriorly in a trident, of which the lateral and shorter prongs extend obliquely upwards on the flanks. There is a large white streak above and behind the eye; and frequently at least a purple crescentic area extends across the back behind the fin. The killer attains a length of at least 20 feet.

In spite of many nominal species having been recognized, there can be little doubt that the killer has a cosmopolitan distribution; ranging from Greenland in the north to the coasts of Australia in the south. Although chiefly keeping to the open sea, killers occasionally ascend tidal rivers: and three specimens were observed in the Thames in the spring of 1890. These individuals entered the river during the night, and on the following morning were seen swimming up and down the reach between Battersea and Chelsea Bridges. After continuing there for several hours, they at length headed for the sea, which they probably reached, as there is no record of their having been attacked.

 

When at sea, killers may always be recognised by their tall and nearly vertical back-fin. They generally associate in small parties; and subsist not only on fish, but likewise on the flesh of other members of their own order, as well as on that of seals. Captain Scammon writes that " the killers exhibit a boldness and cunning peculiar to their carnivorous propensities. At times they are seen in schools, undulating over the waves,—two, three, six, or eight abreast,—and, with the long, pointed fins above their arched backs, together with their varied marks and colours, they present a pleasing and somewhat military aspect. But generally they go in small squads,—less than a dozen,—alternately showing themselves above the surface of the water, or gliding just below, when nothing will be visible but their projecting dorsals; or they disport themselves by rolling, tumbling, and leaping nearly out of the water, or cutting various antics with their flukes. At such times, they usually move rapidly over the surface of the sea, and soon disappear in the distance." It appears that at times both the long-finned males and the shorter-firmed females may be found in the same school, while at other times the two sexes keep apart. The swiftness of the killer is very great, as it is able to overtake the smaller dolphins, which it swallows alive. Its voracity is apparently insatiable; Eschricht stating that one of these animals was known to swallow four porpoises in succession, while from the stomach of another individual, whose length did not exceed 16 feet, were taken fourteen seals, whales attacked Like the other larger members of the order, the Greenland whale by Killers. js sometimes attacked by a party of killers. Writing on the subject of these attacks Captain Scammon says that " three or four of these voracious animals do not hesitate to grapple with the largest baleen-whale; and it is surprising to see those leviathans of the deep so completely paralysed by the presence of their natural, although diminutive enemies. Frequently the terrified animal— comparatively of enormous size and superior strength—evinces no effort to escape, but lies in a helpless condition, or makes but little resistance to the assaults of its merciless destroyers. The attack of these wolves of the ocean upon their gigantic prey may be likened in some respects to a pack of hounds holding a stricken deer at bay. They cluster about the animal's head, some of their number breaching over it, while others seize it by the lips and draw the bleeding monster under water; and when captured, should the mouth be open, they eat out its tongue. We once saw an attack made by three killers upon a cow whale and her calf, in a lagoon on the coast of California in the spring of 1858. The whale was of the California grey species, and her young was grown to three times the bulk of the largest killers engaged in the contest, which lasted for an hour or more. They made alternate assaults upon the old whale and her offspring, finally killing the latter, which sank to the bottom, where the water was five fathoms deep. During the struggle the mother became nearly exhausted, having received several deep wounds about the mouth and lips. As soon as their prize had settled to the bottom, the three killers descended, bringing up large pieces of flesh in their mouths, which they devoured after coming to the surface. While gorging themselves in this wise, the old whale made her escape, leaving a track of gory water behind." On the 9th of September 1893, when off the coast of Minas Geraes, Brazil, at no great distance from the islands of Los Abrolhos, in long. 39° W., lat. 18° S., the attention of the present writer was attracted by the appearance of a whale and some other creatures at a distance of apparently something less than a quarter of a mile from the ship. The whale was a firmer, or humpback, of no very great size, and was seen spouting, and again descending. Immediately after its first descent there appeared above the surface of the sea what seemed to be the tail-fin of some animal unknown. This supposed fin was raised in a vertical position, where it remained vibrating for some seconds and then suddenly disappeared. In colour it was a pure glistening white; while in form it appeared to be laterally compressed, with sharp edges and an acute termination. It gave the impression of belonging to some animal which was engaged in attacking the whale beneath the surface; and I should estimate its height above the water approximately at 5 or 6 feet. Soon after the disappearance of this strange white object, the broad black head of what I presume to have been a killer was seen above the water; and in a few seconds the whale itself again rose to spout. That these black animals, which appeared to be harrassing and attacking the whale, were killers, I have no reasonable doubt; but the question arises as to the nature of the animal to which the strange white tail-like object seen standing above the water could have belonged. My impression at the time was that it must be the upper lobe of the tail of some enormous shark allied to the threshers (Alopecias); and this impression has been confirmed by a subsequent examination of the stuffed specimens of that genus in the British Museum. The thresher is, however, a black shark; while the minute size of its teeth seems to discredit the common accounts of its attacking whales. Unless, however, it could have been the flipper of a humpback, I am at a loss to imagine to what other animal the aforesaid white tail-like object could have belonged, save to some gigantic shark allied to the thresher, but of a white colour, and probably armed with much larger teeth.


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