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Few things, in nature, are as impressive as when a multi-ton animal launches itself out of the water. Everyone, seasoned researchers included, gets excited when whales start breaching.

The Center for Whale Research’s longest-serving staff member, ORCA SURVEY Lead Dave Ellifrit, educates us about orca BREACHING: the definition of a whale breach, theories about why orcas breach, who the current “breachy” Southern Resident and Bigg’s breachers are, and the all-time orca breaching champs.

Photographs © Copyright 2024 Center for Whale Research.

Classic Full Breach by Southern Resident orca L87. Photograph by CWR’s Dave Ellifrit.


WE USUALLY DEFINE A BREACH as a whale making an effort to lift at least a third of its body out of the water and landing on its side, belly, or back with a splash. In years past, we had different names for different types of breaches, but they are basically the same behavior.

  • A “full breach” or “normal breach” is when a whale comes most of the way out of the water with the flank patches exposed and usually landing on its side. 

  • A “half breach” is when a whale only lifts about a third to a half of its body out of the water while landing on its side. 

  • A “belly flop” is when a whale breaches but lands on its stomach or enters the water head first. 

  • A “back dive” is when a breaching whale lands on its back. 

We don’t record every single breach anymore, but old habits die hard, and we usually call out the old terms when we see whales doing things anyway.


Why do killer whales breach? While the reasons for breaching may seem obvious on some occasions, at other times, it is a mystery as to why the whales are actually doing it. Sometimes, the whales will pass a headland into another body of water, and multiple whales will breach. This would often happen when the whales used to head north past East Point [Saturna Island, British Columbia] and into the Strait of Georgia. Is it just excitement? Young socializing whales seem to do the most breaching, and when they fly out of the water in all the action, it is hard not to believe they are breaching because it is fun. On the other hand, you can have spread out traveling whales, and a random individual will breach for no apparent reason and continue on its way.


Young socializing whales seem to do the most breaching, and when they fly out of the water in all the action, it is hard not to believe they are breaching because it is fun.


TOP ROW (left to right): T101B Belly Flop, K33 Back Dive, T37A2 Full Breach

BOTTOM ROW (left to right): L22 Half Breach, K25 Full Breach, J32 Full Breach.

All photographs by CWR’s Dave Ellifrit.

It is doubtful that the sound a breach makes is used for communicating over long distances, as it has been noted that it is not nearly as loud as killer whale calls, whistles, and clicks. Perhaps a breach near another whale is some sort of signal, though. With Bigg’s killer whales, breaching seems to happen most often during or after a kill. When it is after a kill, it is hard not to interpret breaching as a celebratory behavior. Breaching during a kill often seems to involve individuals who are peripheral to the actual hunt. I once saw T137A breach four times in a row during a kill he did not seem to be taking part in. Perhaps the extra splashing creates confusion for the prey and keeps them from bolting in certain directions? Or maybe the whales not actively involved in the hunt are just getting wrapped up in the excitement of it all? We don’t know yet.


Young females in the years before they should be having their first calf are enthusiastic breachers.


While just about every whale will breach eventually, there are a few whales who have had phases of their lives where they seemed to breach more often than others. Young females in the years before they should be having their first calf are enthusiastic breachers. J32 was probably our best breacher, and all CWR staff have had several breaching sessions with her. L53 was known for going fairly crazy with her surface behaviors, and we have a lot of breach photos of her, too, including the one on Ken’s Mt. Baker breach poster. J19 also comes to mind, and she is still good for a breach or two every so often. For Bigg’s, the whales we seem to be catching breaches from the most often are a few of the adult males: T19B, T101B, and T123A. These are fairly common Ts [Bigg’s Transient killer whales], though, and there is not much reason to believe they breach any more than others throughout the course of their lives.

Another of the Southern Resident orca community’s great breachers, L53, in July 2008.

Photograph by CWR founder Ken Balcomb (1940-2022).


In the end, breaching is somewhat situational but we just don’t know why exactly they do it on every occasion. Regardless of why they do it, we will continue to be thrilled when the whales do breach and we will continue to share our breach photos with you all.

DAVE ELLIFRIT: Center for Whale Research ORCA SURVEY Lead Dave Ellifrit has been a staff member since 1990. Dave is responsible for curating the killer whale photographic library and associated database. He is the “fin-guy,” able to recognize virtually any Eastern North Pacific killer whale (orca) at a glance.


48 years ago, we experienced our

first encounter with J pod

April 16, 1976

From left to right: J11, J1, J3, J8 (surfacing), J16, and an unknown juvenile.

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