Orca or Killer Whale

Orcinus orca
(Linnaeus, 1758)

DERIVATION: orcinus may be from the Latin orca for “a kind of whale,” or orcynus for “a kind of tunny,” referring to the species' resemblance to tuna or its habit of preying on them.

Orcas, or killer whales, are actually the largest member of the dolphin family and the top predator in the marine environment. Spanish whalers called orcas "whale killers" after observing them hunt in packs, killing or overcoming marine mammals, including whales. Somehow, their name got turned around to today's designation, "killer whales.” No accurate report exists of orcas in the wild attacking or killing humans.

Physical Characteristics:

  • Length: males average 23 ft (7 m), may reach 32 ft (9.8 m) and females average 20 ft (6 m), may reach 28 ft (8.5 m).
  • Weight: males up to 10 tons (10,000 kg) and females 7.5 tons (7,500 kg).
  • Dorsal Fin Height: up to 6 ft (1.8 m) on males and 3 ft (0.9 m) on females and immature males.
  • Calves: typically 7 ft (2.2 m) long and 375 lb (170 kg) at birth. For the first few months of their life, their bellies and eye patches are pinkish-orange or tan, not white.
  • Teeth: adults have a total of 40-56 conical teeth or 10-14 teeth on each side of the upper and lower jaw.

Orcas have the most impressive markings of any animal in the sea or on land with their powerful black glossy bodies, white eye patch situated above and behind the eye, and white flank and belly markings.

Saddle patches are light gray and behind the dorsal fin. The dorsal fins are different for each whale and are the means researchers have utilized to identify individual orcas. The oval eye patch, which varies in size and shape, is also an excellent means of identification.

By using these recognizable markings, a Canadian researcher, the late Michael Bigg, realized years ago that by photographing and cataloging resident pods of orcas in the waters surrounding Vancouver Island, Canada, each whale could be identified and followed over its lifetime.

K.C. Balcomb III formed Orca Survey and began similar studies of resident orca pods in the American waters surrounding the San Juan Islands, Washington. These combined studies have resulted in long and thorough research of cetaceans in U.S. and Canadian waters.

Feeding: Orca populations have extremely diverse diets and scientists are discovering many different types of orcas in the world's oceans. Orca diets are often geographic or population specific. Some types like the eastern North Pacific "resident" orca populations specialize on salmon (Chinook and chum salmon), while others like “transients” feed on marine mammals: sea otters, seals and sea lions, and cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises). Off the coast of Norway orcas feed in a coordinated method on herring and other schooling fish. In the waters off New Zealand they feed on stingrays and sharks, while orcas that live in Antarctic waters specialize on minke whales, seals and Antarctica toothfish. In addition, orcas feed on cephalopods, sea birds, and marine turtles. They all have a great diversity of feeding strategies, including intentional beaching to attack seals onshore as seen off the Patagonia coast.

Life Cycle: Orcas remain with their family group or pod throughout their life, which can be up to 70 years. They are extremely long-lived animals, with males living to 50-60 years and females up to 80-90 years in the wild.

Pods are structured around a matrilineal group, which may include two or three generations of whales. A two-generation matrilineal group consists of a female whale and her offspring, and three-generation matrilineal group also includes her “grandchildren,” the offspring of her female offspring. Each pod has a specific dialect (vocalizations or calls that are characteristic of the pod) that is believed to keep them together as a family group. A pod may be comprised of a few whales or up to 55 whales. Occasionally, pods come together and form short-term coalitions called "super pods.”

Sexual maturity is reached at 10-15 years for females and about 15 years for males. The calving interval in the Pacific Northwest is about five years. Age at weaning is about 1-2 years, but it could occur later.

Behavior: Pods of orcas, as known from the long studies of British Columbia and Washington residents, represent one of the most stable societies known among non-human mammals and stay within their natal pod throughout life. They are a very aerial and acrobatic species, often seen breaching, spyhopping, flipper-slapping and fluke-slapping. When resting, they often travel slowly in a line abreast of each other. They surface together at regular intervals breathing in very rhythmic fashion as if they were one. This is especially impressive to observe in a large pod of orcas as they slow down and slip into a resting state during sunset.

Distribution: Orcas are cosmopolitan, living in all the world's oceans. They can be seen in any marine region, from the equator to the ice edges, and they have even been known to travel up rivers. There are 5 recognizable geographic forms of orcas: Type A “resident,” Type A “offshore,” Type A “transient,” Type B, and Type C orcas. For a more detailed understanding of the different types of orcas, their geographic range, and distribution. See: Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) - Office of Protected Resources – NOAA.

Threats and Status: Orcas have no enemies other than man. They have at times been the targets of commercial and subsistence whaling, but never on a large scale. They are still killed in small numbers in Japan, Greenland, Indonesia, and the Caribbean Islands and killed or injured by incidental entanglements in fishing nets and vessel collisions. Other concerns are declining prey, heavy boat traffic, noise pollution from vessels, global warming, seismic testing, and Naval sonar testing that has displaced orca pods from their critical feeding habitats. The sounds from sonar and seismic testing kill some whales with the deafening sounds. An ominous threat to the world’s orca populations is pollution, and some pods have already earned the unfortunate title of being the most contaminated wildlife on Earth. Pollution is affecting their food and water that can induce immune deficiencies, pathological changes in tissues, chronic poisoning, and lead to impaired reproduction. See: West Coast Killer Whales Are Poisoned by Pollution-Tainted Killer Salmon.

Live-captures for oceanaria and aquariums have reduced orca numbers. There have been several famous captive orcas: Lolita, Corky, Keiko (deceased), and Tilikum. Lolita is the last surviving orca of 45 members of the Southern Resident community that were captured and delivered to aquaria between 1965 and 1973. Thirteen of these animals  were killed in the capture process. Lolita, the oldest whale in captivity, has been held at  Miami Seaquarium since 1970. Some individuals and animal groups are still trying to have Lolita returned to her family pod (the L-pod). People now realize the cruelty of capture and captivity, and it has been outlawed in many countries. Corky is the only orca to be held in captivity longer and she is at SeaWorld, San Diego. See: Tragic Truth About Orcas in Captivity for more information.


Jefferson, T.A., M.A. Webber and R.L. Pitman. 2008. Marine Mammals of the World: A Comprehensive Guide to Their Identification. Academic Press/Elsevier, 573 pp.

Leatherwood, S. and R. Reeves. 1983. The Sierra Club Handbook of Whales and Dolphins. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 302 pp.

Perrin, W.F., B. Würsig and J.G.M. Thewissen. 2009, Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, Ed. 2. Academic/Elsevier Press, Amsterdam, NL. 1316 pp.

28 Hour Orca Encounter
Maris Sidenstecker I (Summer 1978)

My first encounter with orcas in the wild was their sound -- we could hear their blows before they came in sight -- as the pod moved rapidly north in Haro Strait, San Juan Islands. When they came in view, the huge and powerful dorsal of a large bull (J-1) was a majestic sight. If you have only seen captive orcas, the size of a healthy male dorsal fin is astounding.

During this same period with Orca Survey, while on a schooner off of San Juan Island, we encountered K-pod and an afternoon's outing turned into evening, night, morning, and the following afternoon. The only time we were out of touch with the pod was before dawn when the orcas entered Vancouver Harbor, British Columbia. We waited. Very soon through the hydrophones we picked up their chirps and whistles as they turned and headed south, back to the San Juans.

In 28 hours, we had observed orcas playing, eating salmon, socializing with another pod, spyhopping and breaching, all the while traveling over 100 miles. Regretfully, we left K-pod where we had picked them up. Conceivably, it was an average orca day to them, but being human, we needed rest.

Luna – One Orca’s Odyssey
March 10, 2006

Luna died tragically on Friday, March 10, 2006, when he was struck by the propeller of a large tugboat, General Jackson. Luna had been playing close to the tug’s stern, as he had done many times with other vessels during the time he lived on his own. What happened is unknown, but Luna was killed when he was sucked into the wash from General Jackson’s propellers.

Luna was undoubtedly killed instantly, as his body parts were seen floating on the water’s surface. His story and influence is felt throughout the world.

In July 2001, a young orca appeared in Nootka Sound, an area half way up the west side of Vancouver Island. The juvenile whale befriended the crew of a supply boat, the Uchuck III. For weeks, as the boat traveled back and forth on its runs, the orca became increasingly friendly. In a contest held by a Seattle newspaper, the young orca was named Luna. Scientists identified him as L-98, a member of the L-pod (the “Southern Residents”), by matching his saddle patch with early photographs. He was born in September 1999 to Splash, L-67. The L-pod was not known to travel to Nootka Sound (200 sea miles north of their summer territory), but Luna had found his way there. Moreover, he had learned to catch and eat enough salmon to keep himself alive.

One theory is that he was swimming with his uncle, Orcan, L-39. When Orcan died, Luna could not find his way back to his pod. He has been living on his own for a long time, away from the companionship of his close-knit family group and mother.

Luna became a celebrity in the area around Nootka Sound. The local Mowachaht/Muchalaht natives named him Tsu-xiit. Before their patriarch Ambrose Maquinna died in late July 2001, he reportedly said to a friend, “When I go home, I want to come back as a kakaw’in,” an orca. Shortly after he died, Luna appeared on the scene.

For a while, Luna lived in obscurity, but in January 2002, the world learned of him when newspaper accounts of his exploits began to appear. The Mowachaht kept a respectful distance from Luna. Others showed less respect and promoted whale-watching tours that were really whale-petting sessions.

With no family or friends, Luna would surf beside boats, dive beneath them, bump their hulls and almost climb into the boats. He would occasionally put his head on the gunwales, open his mouth, and let his tongue be rubbed. When a tourist’s hat fell into the water off of the Uchuck, Luna surfaced with it balanced on his nose.

The Canadian Department of Fisheries (DFO) announced that it was going to enforce a law that doesn’t allow people to disturb marine mammals. A Gold River fishery officer named Ed Thorburn was in charge of enforcement. It was a difficult rule to enforce, as “disturb” includes contact that is initiated by the animal itself.

A research paper by Toni Frohoff, a marine mammal biologist in Washington State, concluded that, “The animals that had the most contact with humans had the least likelihood of survival.”

This led to an effort to reunite Luna with his family. In October 2003, the DFO, in collaboration with the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, prepared a plan. Thorburn would try to lead Luna to a reunion with his pod if they swam near Nootka Sound. The theory was that if he heard his family’s calls, he would join them. If this didn’t work, a team of aquarium experts would catch him in a net and transport him by truck to a pen closer to his pod’s home waters. He would be released when he communicated by vocalizing with his pod.

The Mowachaht/Muchalaht did not want Luna moved, but Thorburn did not think they would interfere. A large net trap had been assembled, and the DFO moved ahead with his capture. On the morning of the intended capture, two dugout canoes appeared full of members of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation. Chanting and singing, they paddled away from the dock into the sound. Luna appeared and followed the tribe members for 30 miles. It was a victory for the natives, but the DFO still planned to capture Luna. The tug of war went on for nine days.

When Thorburn went out in a boat to lead Luna to the pen, the natives were there in two canoes to lead him away. Luna thought that this was a game. For a while, the natives would lead him away; then he would follow Thorburn. After several attempts, Luna was led into a net, and a rope was pulled to trap him. But Luna slipped out of the pen and joined the Mowachaht/Muchalaht. Further efforts to capture him failed, and Thorburn said that if they were to capture him, it would have to be with the cooperation of the tribe members.

After this, Luna was left pretty much on his own. A Luna advocacy group urged the DFO and the Mowachaht/Muchalaht to meet and discuss his future. A monitoring program was discussed to ensure his safety. More details of the story of Luna may be found on www.reuniteluna.com.

Orca Activities:

Breaching - Throwing their bodies above the water’s surface and returning with a big splash.

Lobtailing - Raising their tails high into the air and bringing them crashing onto the water’s surface.

Spyhopping - Hanging vertically in the water with their heads above the surface to look over their surroundings; also called pitch-poling.

Fluke Slapping - Raising a flipper and slapping it against the water.