Orcas 101



Fun Facts About Orcas (Also Known As “Killer Whales”)

Ever wonder why orcas are called “killer whales?” Or where you can see orcas in the wild? Keep on reading below to learn about the species and discover how fascinating and unique orcas really are.    

  1. Who are orcas? Orcas are marine mammals who belong to the dolphin family (Delphinidae). They are the largest species of dolphins and are recognizable by their black-and-white coloration and white patches near each of their eyes.  
  1. Why are orcas also called “killer whales?” It’s believed that when European fisherman and sailors encountered orcas hundreds of years ago, they witnessed orcas hunting whales. As a result, they named the species “whale killers.” When the name was translated into English, it became “killer whales.” Although known to hunt a variety of species, there have been no documented cases of orcas killing humans in the wild. 
  1. What do orcas eat? Orcas are the ocean’s apex predators, which means they have no natural predators. Orcas eat a variety of different foods such as fish, stingrays, sharks, whales, seals, and penguins, and even great white sharks! Depending on the orca community, each has their own specialized, traditional diet. For example, transient orcas in the Salish Sea eat only marine mammals like seals and sea lions while the Southern Residents (also found in the Salish Sea) eat only fish, especially the Chinook salmon.
  1. Do orcas live in groups? Yes, orcas live in close-knit groups called “pods.” Orcas live in a matriarchal society, where older females pass down knowledge and model specific behaviors to the younger members of their family.  
  1. Are orcas endangered? According to the IUCN, orcas are currently listed as “Data Deficient,” which means their conservation status is unknown. However, the Southern Resident Orcas (a population of orcas who live off the US Pacific coastline) are considered endangered under the Endangered Species Act. This is largely attributed to the decline of Chinook salmon in their habitat – which makes up 80% of their diet.   
  1. Where can I see orcas in the wild? Orcas are the most widely distributed mammals, living in every ocean around the world. In the US, the San Juan Islands in Washington State are considered the best place in the country to view orcas in the wild. You can also find them in Dana Point, California and Resurrection Bay, Alaska.  
  1. What was Blackfish about? Blackfish, the documentary, told the story of Tilikum, a captive orca who killed several of his trainers. The film also explained the controversies behind keeping orcas in captivity. Because of the film, SeaWorld announced it would end its orca-breeding program.
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