Sleeping On The Job: How Do Orcas Sleep?

how do orcas sleep

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Orcas are undoubtedly some of the most fascinating animals in our oceans. They’re extremely intelligent and use this to their advantage when hunting prey much bigger than themselves

Killer whales have no natural predators in the wild, which puts them at the very top of the food chain in marine ecosystems.

But like all animals, they too need time to sleep and recover. This leads to the interesting question of how do orcas sleep?

Given that these animals spend all of their time in the water, sleeping isn’t quite as simple as tucking up into the sheets and switching off the light.

There are lots of threats in the ocean, and even while being top predators they still have to look out for hazards such as fishing boats and pollution.

Let’s take a closer look…

How Do Orcas Sleep?

Orcas are marine mammals which means they have lungs and need to breathe by coming to the surface for air.

They’re conscious breathers that have a unique way of being able to sleep whilst keeping themselves safe in the ocean.

As they need to remain near the surface for air, they’re unable to drop into a deep sleep as many terrestrial animals do.

Orcas have two different sleep modes; slow-wave sleep and active wakefulness. During slow-wave sleep, their breathing slows down and they remain mostly still.

how do orcas sleep
Image by NOAA Fisheries West Coast

Oftentimes they shut down one side of their brain for sleep, whilst the other side remains active and allows them to continue swimming as well as be on alert for danger.

Sharks sleep in a similar way as other marine animals as it allows them to stay alert whilst also resting.

During active wakefulness, orcas are fully alert and engaged with their environment.

This is the period when they socialize and engage with their environment, but they may also nap during the day for short periods, allowing them to rest during the day.

Orcas may nap for around 30 minutes during the day whilst being surrounded by their pod, keeping them safe from any potential threats.

How Long Do Orcas Sleep For?

The length of time an orca sleeps will depend on a number of factors, including age, size, health, and physical activity.

For the most part, orcas are known to sleep in short bursts throughout the day, anywhere from as little as ten minutes to a few hours.

This allows them to get the rest that they need without being vulnerable for too long, but when in slow-wave sleep they may rest for even longer.

As orcas need to remain near the surface to breathe, they are rarely sleeping for extended periods and prefer to nap multiple times throughout the day.

Napping is a quick and easy way to reduce fatigue, improve performance and make sure they’re ready for any potential prey they come across.

When Do Orcas Sleep?

Sleep patterns of orcas can change based on their social structures and the presence of potential threats.

Stress and high activity can also disturb orcas’ sleep, and during times when stress is high, they may not sleep for days.

Orcas in captivity have a hard time sleeping due to stress and cramped living conditions, and they don’t have as much control over when they sleep as their wild counterparts do.

They may be forced to stay awake at certain times of the day to accommodate their handlers and perform for guests.

In some cases, orcas may go as long as several days without getting any sleep at all, this may occur if they find themselves trapped in boating lanes or out of their familiar territory.

Orcas are known to sleep both during the day and night, and depending on their environment they will usually sleep in the afternoon or early evening.

They also take short naps during the day to provide them with the rest they need, which means they don’t need to sleep for longer than a couple of hours when the time comes for a “long” sleep.

Do All Orcas In The Pod Sleep At The Same Time?

Many orcas live together in groups of pods, usually between 5 and 30 individuals but some can be as large as 100 or more.

In this environment, orcas may take turns sleeping with their pod member so that whilst one is sleeping the other can keep a watchful eye for threats.

This allows the entire pod to rest and recover stress-free, whilst under the watchful eye of their pod members.

A setup like this is especially true for mothers and their calves, as the mother needs to remain awake to protect her calf from predators.

As mentioned, the sleeping pattern of orcas can vary based on a lot of factors, but those in a pod do not sleep at the same time and instead take turns for better protection.

How Do Baby Orcas Sleep?

Killer whale calves have a different sleeping pattern than adults as they’re not yet strong enough to swim and control their breathing for long periods.

They need to sleep more often than adults to ensure their development, so they’ll sleep for most of the day usually in short 15-minute bursts.

orca mother and calf
Image by J. Maughn

This allows them to get the rest that they need whilst Mum can look out for predators, and the mother will also help the calf come near to the surface to breathe when needed.

As calves grow older and they begin to gain control of their breathing and learn both slow-wave sleep and active wakefulness, their routine becomes similar to their mothers.

Wrapping Up

Orcas have a fascinating way of sleeping that allows them to remain partially awake by shutting down one part of their brain at a time.

This means they can always be on the lookout for predators and threats whilst getting the well-deserved rest and recovery time that their bodies need.

Orcas that live in pods will take turns to sleep, protecting others whilst they are awake and getting some solid shut-eye when it’s their turn.

Sleeping patterns are complex for orcas, and they can often go days without getting any sleep at all.

They sleep during the day and night in short intervals to avoid being overexposed. Hopefully, this post has provided you with clarity and answered your question about how do orcas sleep.

See you in the next one.