By Hannah Stevens @Hannahshewans

MIGRATING orcas celebrate a successful hunt by showing off their stunning aerial skills, including dorsal fin slaps and belly flops

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Some orca language transcends to other pods but most vocals are only understood by their pod family

In the Salish Sea around Washington’s San Juan Island, wildlife photographer Julie Picardi captured the transient orcas’ leaps - along with three resident whale pods - on camera.

Resident orcas do not need the same excuse to perform and will often breach or cartwheel without warning - a challenge for any eagle-eyed photographers.

The 55-year-old photographer said: “The resident orcas also enjoy spy hopping, a manoeuvre when the whale will suddenly appear with its head vertically out of the water.

Orca whale mothers have a specific call for their calves

“Scientists believe this is their way of getting an above surface view of what is going on around them.”

Orcas are found in oceans around the world and do not follow a regular migration route, instead appearing to travel based on the availability of food.

Pod groups are led by the orca grandmothers and mothers

Only 84 resident orcas live in the area and the survival of the species is under threat from decreasing quantities of food, increased levels of biochemicals in the water and underwater noise pollution.

Julie said: “Females do not reach sexual maturity until the age of 15 years and the gestation period for one calf produced is about 18 months.

Orca pods are closely knit with strong matriachal bonds

“The calf stays with the mother to nurse for about three years, therefore only one calf per adult female is produced within a five year period.”

The Southern Resident orca pods have also never fully recovered from the removal of 45 whales for marine parks between 1965 and 1975 - 13 other whales died during the extractions.

By capturing the beauty of the elusive whales, Julie hopes to convince people that these creatures are not so killer after all.

Younger orcas, both male and female, maintain social relationships with their mothers their entire lives

She said: “Although I believe orca whales instill fear in most people, we learned that these animals are not known to be aggressive towards humans.

“My husband was told stories about a large orca known as Big Mike.

Orcas may look identical but there are small variations on the saddle patch - the white area behind the dorsal fin

“Big Mike enjoys the company of kayakers so much that he will deter them from leaving at the end of the day by constantly swimming in front of them to thwart them.

“Never having displayed any aggressive behaviour, it appears he simply desires human companionship.”

The friendly giants were equally as playful around Julie’s boat.

Feeding preferences differ between groups of orcas

Picardi said: “The animals seemed not to care that we were near and often times came straight towards the boat, diving underneath and surfacing on the opposite side in their quest for food.

“Never were we fearful of the great beasts but were amazed that they never touched, rubbed or rocked the boat having come so very close to us.”

After several highly-publicised lethal accidents with orcas in captivity, many still believe the orcas live up to their killer nickname, but Julie hopes that her work will help people understand the whales’ true nature.

Southern Resident orcas mostly feed on salmon while transient orcas prefer smaller marine animals

She added: “Possibly through intense consideration efforts we can impart the endearing nature of these whales, destigmatise them and show that they are a vital segment of the circle of life for Mother Earth.

“Not to be feared, but to be admired and consequently live in harmony with them and other animals so precious to this world.”

See more of Julie’s work at: http://www.juliepicardiphotography.com