How High Can Orcas Jump?

February 15, 2024

As any whale watcher knows, orcas (killer whales) are capable of launching themselves out of the water in an exhilarating display that leaves anyone within range awe-struck and probably a little wet. This type of jump is known as a breach and can occur for a variety of reasons, with the most obvious being to interact with or communicate with members of their pod. It can also be used as a way to stun prey and make it easier to catch. Other reasons for breaching include playing, helping digestion, or dislodging barnacles attached to their bodies.

The awe factor is certainly high as it takes a tremendous amount of energy to blast out of the water, especially for an animal that can weigh in at up to 450,000 pounds! The energy expended in a single breach can be equivalent to the amount of energy that it takes for an average human to run a marathon.

In order to maximize the height of their breaches, whales are able to alter the angle of their departure from the water. They are able to do this by adding in long-axis rotations of their body or by spinning on their ventral surface (ie belly). By doing this, whales can breach at an elevated angle while still maintaining the momentum needed for a vertical launch.

The rotational energy a whale adds to a breach is believed to help reduce the force needed for a successful launch by countering the effect of gravity and reducing the surface area against which they are pushing. It may also help them achieve a higher initial velocity, which is critical to their breaching abilities as a projectile thrown upwards reaches its maximum height based on its initial speed regardless of size or mass.

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