10 Incredible Facts About Killer Whales

Killer whales are intelligent, devoted, and loving creatures. They are also deadly hunters.

May 11, 2023By Nancy Schaffer
facts killer whales

Orcas, commonly known as killer whales, are members of the dolphin family. They are some of the most intriguing marine creatures on the planet. Here are ten incredible facts about these majestic aquatic mammals.

1. Largest Member of the Dolphin Family

killer whale largest dolphin

Killer whales are the largest members of the dolphin family and can grow up to 30 feet long. A male orca can weigh about 22,000 pounds, and eat about 500 pounds of fish daily, equivalent to 18-25 adult salmon.

Orcas are fast swimmers and excellent hunters. They hunt in pods and can coordinate their movements to take down prey much larger than themselves. They were originally called “whale killers,” a name that was eventually changed to “killer whales,” even though they are members of the dolphin family.

2. Complex Language

orcas complex language

Orcas have sophisticated and complex language patterns and can communicate with each other for miles. Using deep machine learning, researchers have discovered that, like humans, orcas have regional dialects. They communicate with each other through voice, touch, and behaviors, too.

Killer whales can learn to copy the whistles and calls of other species, and they are one of the only animals that can learn to mimic human speech. They also use sounds to “wave hunt,” making sound waves to herd their prey toward them.

3. Strong Emotional Bonds

killer whale strong bonds

Orcas are highly social animals and live in close family units. They are one of the few animals to live in multigenerational families. They form strong emotional bonds within their pods and have been seen to express grief for their deceased relatives. They often stay with deceased family members for extended periods and exhibit signs of depression similar to those of humans.

In addition, orcas have been known to rescue other species from predators, demonstrating their sense of empathy and altruism. They also display strong feelings of loyalty and a high level of cooperation within the pod, working together to hunt and protect their young.

4. Apex Predators

orcas apex predators

Apex predators are animals at the top of their food chain, meaning they have no natural predators. Apex predators are important for keeping ecosystems in balance, which is one of the reasons why many people are working to save the killer whale.

Their speed in the water and hunting prowess keeps them at the top of the food chain. Killer whales also have one of the strongest bite forces of any animal on earth. At 19,000 psi, their bite force eclipses the pressure exerted by animals such as the saltwater crocodile, which is 3,700 psi.

5. Worldly Whales

orcas worldly whales

Killer whales are found in all parts of the world, which is another uncommon trait in wild animals. They have habitat regions in every ocean, from the Arctic to the Antarctic.

Killer whales are among the only animals able to survive in fresh and saltwater environments. While it isn’t common, orcas have been observed in freshwater rivers like the Rhine and the Elbe.

6. Matriarchal Societies

orcas matriarchal societies

Killer whales live in matriarchal societies. Matriarchal societies are common in the animal kingdom. Along with killer whales, hyenas, lions, horses, elephants, and cows form matriarchal societies, with the oldest female leading the group.

Within these matriarchal societies, killer whales can live long lives. Female orcas also go through menopause and can live several years after they are past their child-bearing years, which is uncommon in wild animals.

The male orcas in the pod usually stay with the pod for life, even after they reach sexual maturity. This helps ensure that the pod remains strong and unified. The males also help protect the pod, as they are larger and stronger than the females.

7. Playful and Intelligent

orca self aware

Orcas are some of the most intelligent creatures in the ocean. From their complex communication to their highly developed social lives, orcas have been found to exhibit signs of self-awareness and playfulness.

Killer whales can pass a mirror test, which means they recognize themselves in a mirror. The ability to identify themselves shows self-awareness and is a sign of higher intelligence.

Killer whales have a keen sense of play, which is another sign of intelligence in animals. They will often play with objects, such as sea logs and kelp, and they are infamous for playing with their prey.

8. Deep Divers

orcas deep dive

Orcas are impressive deep divers, able to search for food in some of the darkest and deepest parts of the ocean. Even though they usually forage for food near the surface, they can dive as deep as 3,000 feet.

Orcas are designed for deep diving. They have a thick layer of fat to insulate their bodies from cold temperatures and a higher volume of red blood cells than other mammals. Like other whales, higher quantities of red blood cells enable them to store and transport more oxygen. Their muscles also help them control buoyancy, allowing them to descend and ascend rapidly.

9. Interesting Dorsal Fin Facts

killer whale dorsal fin

In captivity, all male killer whales have collapsed dorsal fins. This irreversible condition also occurs in some captive females. Scientists believe that changes in collagen cause collapsed dorsal fins. Collapsed fins can happen in the wild, but it is much less common and likely caused by age, stress, or injury.

Just like a human’s fingerprint is unique, every killer whale has a distinct saddle patch. The saddle patch is the grey spot behind its dorsal fin. Differences in the saddle patch and dorsal fin enable researchers to identify individual orcas.

10. Threatened By Human Activities

wild orcas

Orcas are one of the most iconic and beloved ocean creatures. Unfortunately, they are increasingly threatened by human activities.

Killer whales are threatened by pollution, overfishing, and climate change, which has affected their food supply. One of the biggest threats to their survival is old fishing nets disposed of in the ocean.

Killer whales are protected under both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, but it is difficult for government agencies worldwide to enforce laws on the open ocean.

Nancy Schaffer
By Nancy Schaffer

Nancy is a dog lover with a special place in her heart for Labradors. She has been surrounded by dogs her whole life and now has two of her own - a chocolate named Betty Belle and a black Lab named Darcy Bear. Nancy’s love for dogs began at a young age, and she has always been drawn to this breed’s friendly and affectionate nature. When she's not snuggling with her pups, Nancy can be found hiking or camping with her dogs. They are always ready to go outside!