Seeing Is Believing: Do Orcas Have Eyes?

do orcas have eyes

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Orcas are members of the marine dolphin family known as Delphinidae, but they were given the name killer whales by ancient sailors after observations of groups of orcas hunting larger whales.

These highly intelligent marine mammals are apex predators and at the very top of the ocean food chain.

They often live in pods of between 5 and 30 individuals and use a variety of sophisticated hunting techniques to take down even the largest ocean animals.

Today, we’re going to take a closer look at the orca’s vision, and specifically answer a question that often comes up when discussing these animals. “Do orcas have eyes?”

YES, orcas DO have eyes. They have two eyes located at either side of their head, just below and in front of their white eye patch. Orca eyes are small and difficult to see, but they’re most certainly there.

Let’s take a closer look…

Do Killer Whales Have Eyes?

Killer whales DO have eyes. They have two eyes that are located on either side of their heads which gives these predators excellent vision.

The eyes of a killer whale are about the same size as the eyes of a cow, only their vision is much, much better.

Their vision is superb both in and out of the water which allows them to use techniques such as spy-hopping to locate prey that is located on top of ice caps.

Why Do Orcas Have False Eyes?

When I was growing up I always thought that the white eye patches on an orca were its eyes but later found out that this was not the case.

It’s still unknown why orcas have false eyes but there are a few theories out there. The most popular is that the eye spots protect their actual eyes from attacks by being a false target.

Prey animals will often attack the eyes of their predators to disorientate them, so this could come in handy for killer whales with such large false eyes.

Another theory that some scientists believe is that white eye patches may help family members in the pod to identify one another in dark or murky waters.

Whilst we don’t know the true reason why orcas have eye patches, it’s certainly a good deterrent and makes these animals look all the more menacing.

Can Orcas See In Color?

Yes, orcas can see all the colors that we do aside from the color blue. Orcas are not able to discriminate color in the blue wavelength which means they can’t see this color.

However, they can see very well in all other colors which allow them to have an amazing sense of awareness and be the top predators that they are.

do orcas have eyes
Image: Gregory Smith via Flickr

According to DNA studies of numerous other toothed whale species, these whales do not generate the pigment cells known as short-wave sensitive (S-) cones, which are sensitive to blue light, in their eyes.

Theoretically, all contemporary cetaceans, including killer whales, lack these visual pigments and are unable to distinguish between colors in the blue spectrum.

More On Orca Eyesight

Killer whale vision is very well developed. The eye of marine mammals such as killer whales is more convex (spherical) than that of land mammals.

In a marine mammal’s eye, a more substantially spherical lens makes up for the lack of refraction at the corneal contact.

It resembles a fish’s eye lens more so than a terrestrial mammal’s. When a marine animal is in the air, its eye compensates for the increased refraction at the air-cornea contact.

The pupil’s ability to constrict in bright light is helpful, but it does not explain how a whale acquires visual acuity in the air. The assessment is still ongoing.

Whilst underwater, killer whales can likely see for about 35 feet in high quality, but after this distance, they lose detail.

Orcas can even see very well in near-complete darkness. Scientists found that killer whales could successfully hunt and locate prey in incredibly low-light situations.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, you now have a clear answer to “do orcas have eyes” and a better understanding of the white eye patches they have.

Orcas do have eyes. They have two eyes on either side of the head that provides them with excellent vision both in and out of the water.

This means they can sneak up on prey lounging on ice caps and can get the upper hand when it comes to hunting.

The white eye patches that are located next to orcas’ eyes are still a mystery, but it’s thought that they provide a deterrent from their real eyes which are much smaller.

Thanks for taking the time to learn about orcas and their eyes today.

I’ll catch you in the next one!