Orcas communicate through clicks, calls, and whistles, and put together these form a unique language for a community of orcas that doesn’t appear to be used by any other community, even when they share the same waters.

Language is learned and inherited, and just like human babies, orcas can hear their mother in the womb, and so it’s presumed they’re learning their family’s language before they’re even born!

These whales build a culture around how they live their lives, and their prey choices are central to this, and it shapes their language.

In the Salish Sea, there are two different types of killer whales, each with its own unique culture. The Southern Residents eat fish, and therefore their culture and language is based around how to find and capture salmon. Bigg’s killer whales, aka transients, eat marine mammals and this requires different hunting techniques and so different languages.

Of all the orca families that have been studied in the wild, there have been no reports of a whale being “adopted” by another community. They would not have anything in common, no shared language or ways to communicate, and this is one of many reasons why killer whales should not be held in captivity. Whales from different cultures just cannot interact at all.

However, we do know of one orca who has changed pods—L87, aka Onyx—
and he is doing well despite this unusual behavior. But he’s a member of the southern resident community, and while there are three pods in this community, each with its own calls, they also share a set of calls so that when they come together, they can communicate, socialize and mate and this is how Onyx can communicate no matter who he “moves in with!”

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