The orca is one of those animals that inspire awe and respect, maybe even a little fear, to anyone who has never heard of them.
It’s hard to look at these majestic, boldly colored cetaceans and not be inspired by their powerful presence.
However, even though orcas are actually dolphins (the largest dolphin species), they’re also called killer whales.
These sublime creatures received such a name from early whalers who witnessed them hunting and eating animals much larger than themselves, such as baleen whales.
Even whalers were scared of these efficient hunters and with good reason as orcas are some of the largest apex predators on the planet.
If they can kill and eat an animal as large as a humpback whale they can surely do the same to you, right?
Well truth is that although an orca is perfectly capable of killing a human there has never been a single report of orcas attacking humans in the wild.
Nevertheless, it’s important to keep in mind these are wild animals and you must know what to do if you encounter an orca.
Is It OK To Swim With Orcas In The Wild?
It is OK to swim with orcas in the wild as long as you are permitted by the law to do so or take a guided tour with a reputable operator that is legally allowed to provide this experience in a way that your safety, as well as the orcas’, is guaranteed at all times.
If you were thinking of just jumping in the water if you saw orcas swimming by and seeing what happens, I would strongly advise against this for two reasons:
It is most likely illegal
Always check the local law that specifies how you may or may not interact with wildlife.
This will vary from country to country and even within a single country you will find variations depending on the area.
Spoiler alert: more likely than not it will be illegal to get too close to an Orca in the wild.
In the US the law states you remain at least 200 m / 656 feet from orcas, with some states requiring a minimum distance of 400 m / 1,312 feet.
These laws are set in place to protect the orcas from disruptions that could affect their regular feeding and breeding patterns.
Risk of accident
Laws are also set in place to protect you from a potentially dangerous encounter.
Remember these are apex predators that can weigh almost 6 tons and if you’re not a trained professional you may miss cues that indicate an annoyed animal.
Even if the animal isn’t annoyed but just casually swimming by, if you get accidentally hit by an orca you could easily end up with several fractured bones, and let’s not even get into what would happen if a breaching killer whale accidentally landed on you.
What To Do If You See An Orca In The Water
When it comes to what to actually do if you encounter an orca, different situations call for different actions.
Let’s break them down:
If you’re on a boat
If you’re on a boat out enjoying the ocean and come across a pod of resident killer whales you must remain at a distance of 274.3 m / 300 yards.
For transient pods, the minimum distance is 182.88 m / 200 yards.
Your boat can’t be in front or behind a killer whale within a distance of at least 366 m / 400 yards.
If an orca approaches your boat you must turn off the engine if the whale is within 274.3 m / 300 yards.
The maximum speed your boat can have within 805 m / ½ mile of a killer whale or pod is 7 knots.
Admire these animals from on the boat, and don’t let your emotion take over as you may be tempted to try and touch or even swim with the orca.
If you’re on a kayak or paddle boat
The same laws and distances apply. If an orca is swimming close to you stop paddling so that it can swim past you undisturbed.
If you’re lucky enough to encounter an orca whilst on a kayak, enjoy it!
That’s a real life-changing experience that will undoubtedly stay with you forever. Just don’t be tempted to try and touch the orca and DO NOT try to hit it with your paddle.
You would be surprised at how many people panic when they encounter wild animals on kayaks and attempt to “scare them off”.
If you are swimming
Remain calm. There has never been an attack from a wild orca on a human so chances are you will be OK.
Don’t start frantically kicking and swimming as the disruption will make the orca curious and calmly start making your way to shore or to a boat so that you can get out of the water ASAP.
There’s really no need to panic around these majestic animals, they’re not our to harm you and will likely swim right on past you.
Remember the law varies depending on the country and area where you are so it’s important to research the law in your place of interest.
Is It Safe To Be Around Wild Orcas?
Simply put it is not safe to be around wild orcas. The definition of safe is “protected from or not exposed to danger or risk.” Orcas are apex predators with incredible force that could easily kill you in a second so it is inherently dangerous to be around them.
However, I will remind you that there have been zero deaths, or even attacks, from wild orcas to humans ever registered.
Nonetheless, there have been reports of orca pods attacking ships with some attacks lasting more than one hour.
If you’re ever in the water and find yourself unexpectedly surrounded by orcas, just stay calm and try to get out of the ocean as soon as possible while maintaining a calm demeanor.
Can You Touch Wild Orcas?
No. Never attempt to touch, or feed, wildlife. No matter how beautiful or magical the experience of seeing orcas in the wild is it is of vital importance to remember they are wild animals and as such can be unpredictable.
Additionally, there is always the risk of a zoonotic disease that can be passed on from the killer whales to you or vice versa.
More On Staying Safe Around Orcas
The best way to stay safe is to be informed. If you’ll be getting in the water, whether it’s going to be via boat, paddle, kayak, or swimming, always do some research beforehand regarding the wildlife that is known to inhabit, or visit, the area where you intend to be.
Once you know what wildlife you’re most likely to encounter you can read up on the law dictating what can and can’t be done as well as all the information you can find on what to do in case of an encounter.
If you’re ever so incredibly lucky to witness these colossal animals in their natural environment always be respectful and keep in mind that they are as powerful as they are majestic.
Also, make sure you report your sightings as it’s very helpful for researchers to better understand orca behavior and patterns, therefore, helping them create better strategies for protecting killer whale populations.
Here you will find more detailed information regarding the laws protecting orcas in the US and Canada as well as contact numbers where sightings can be reported.
I am a lover of everything nature and animal related with over 15 years of experience in the field of wildlife rescue and education. Currently living in Colombia working with wild and domestic animals and spending all my free time writing about them 🙂