About Orcas

Wild Orca Killer Whales Transient Orca Alaska

Orcas (Orcinus orca) or killer whales are the world’s biggest dolphins, possessing the second-largest brain of all marine mammals. They belong to the order Cetacea (from the Greek word, “ketos,” meaning “large sea creature”) and the suborder Odontoceti (meaning “toothed whales”).

Family Matters

These highly intelligent mammals live within a complex social structure, their pods comprised of matrilineal family groups. Knowledge is passed down through generations, with behaviors specific to each pod, similar to what we consider culture. Some of these family units remain together their entire lives, always within hearing distance of one another. Each pod also has its own unique dialect.

Females typically first reproduce between 11-13 years of age, and over a course of 40 years, can give birth to 4-6 calves. Males mature between 12-14 years of age. Orcas give birth to a single calf, with other pod females helping care for the young.


Orcas use a complex system of echolocation to navigate their surroundings, bouncing high-pitched sounds off objects, and listening for the returning echoes. Their calls and whistles are distinct amongst specific populations. In captivity, the walls of their small tanks impact their ability to use echolocation; orcas from different families may also not be able to communicate with each other.

Different Types

Orcas can be found in all parts of the oceans, but are most plentiful in the colder waters of the Pacific and North Atlantic oceans, as well as Antarctica. Even in the same area, orca populations differ greatly. Categorized into ecotypes, they demonstrate different social behavior and food preferences.

They hunt in groups, utilizing a variety well-coordinated strategies to track and hunt their prey. Their diet is specific to where they live, consisting of fish (including sharks), sea birds, and other marine mammals (including seals, porpoises, other dolphins and whales).

Orca or Killer?

The name “killer whale” actually derives from the fact that some orcas will hunt large whales in a pack, leading fishermen to call them whale-killers. Orcas are not known to attack humans in the wild– there is only one confirmed case of orca-human aggression. However, orcas in captivity have demonstrated aggressive behavior towards humans.

Tilikum Orca SeaWorld Captivity Blackfish Killer Whale Dolphin Project

Tilikum: Creative Commons 3.0 License / Sawblade5

Orcas In Captivity

Research on wild orcas has demonstrated their tremendous intelligence and complexity. Captivity removes them from their natural environment, separates them from their close-knit families, and deprives them of all natural behaviors.

It is not uncommon for orcas to live 70 years or more in the wild. The world’s oldest known orca, nicknamed “Granny” was estimated to be over 100 years old at the time of her death in January 2017. Captive orcas not only show aggression to humans, but also amongst themselves. They are also susceptible to a wide range of illnesses.

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