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The Orca or Killer Whale

Updated on August 20, 2018
ArtByLinda profile image

Linda is an amateur artist and photographer who loves to travel with her husband of 37 years.

The Orca or Killer Whale

There is something so fascinating about watching Killer Whales. They are these amazingly intelligent mammals; the more I learn about them, it makes me want to study them and photograph them in the wild.

I had the privilege of getting to do just that: photograph the Orcas in the wild. Last August we went to Washington and went out on a boat on the Puget Sound. We got right into the middle of what they call a superpod of Orcas. There were three different pods of Orcas (J, K, and L pods) socializing all around us. We saw what the guide estimated as 65 to 80 different Orcas and got to see them exhibit a lot of the different type of behavior that I studied when I first wrote this lens. It was a dream come true for me, and honestly on my bucket list!

They are beautiful to watch as they move through the water, intimidating and yet somehow they don't seem threatening. I loved watching them care for their babies.

Two Orcas near the San Juan Islands

Two Orcas near the San Juan Islands
Two Orcas near the San Juan Islands | Source

Are Killer Whales and Dolphins Related?

Killer Whales are in the same family as dolphins. They classify them scientifically as follows:

  • Class: Mammals

    They breath air, they give birth to live young, they mothers nurse their young, they have hair at some point in their lives. With Orcas, their hair falls off before birth, but they may have a tiny bit left while they are babies.

  • They are in the Order of Cetacea

    To be in this order an animal must have their forelimbs modified into flippers, a flattened horizontal tail, one or two nostrils on top of their head to breath through, and no hind limbs. The word "cetacean" is derived from the Greek word for whale, "ketos."

  • There is two suborders: the Odontoceti (toothed whales) which is what the killer whale is and the Mysticeti (baleen whales) like the Gray Whale.
  • The word "Odontoceti" comes from the Greek word for tooth, "odontos".
  • Their family is Delphinidae, which has 36 species including all the species of dolphins, Pilot, false killer, and melon headed whales.
  • Which brings us to their species of Orcinus Orca.
  • The Latin name Orcinus comes from the Greek meaning of "belonging to Orcus."
  • Orcus was a Roman god of the netherworld, and this genus name is likely a reference to the ferocious reputation of the killer whale.
  • They received the name of "Killer Whale" because they kill whales.

Orca Behaviors

This is what started me on my journey into studying the Orcas. I was watching a special on the animal planet with some footage that had been filmed from a cruise ship. There was a single seal on an ice drift and they filmed the Orcas working together as a team to "de-seal" the ice! The exhibited an incredible amount of intelligence as they worked through the problem as a team.

They would "spy hop" this is where they stand almost straight up in the water and bob up and down to see what is on top of the ice and where it is.

They would launch themselves onto the side of the ice, I think in an attempt to tip the ice so the seal would float towards them.

And what happened next was when I realized their extreme intelligence. They worked as a team, with six to eight whales swimming away from the ice, and their they synchronized their swimming, traveling fast right toward the ice, then dove together at the last minute and sent a wave of water over the top of the ice that washed the seal right off of it. With a whale waiting at the other end.

They did not eat the seal right away, it popped right back up on the ice, they may have even put it back up there. Then they did the same thing again. They had a marine biologist narrating, that said she believed they were actually training the younger whale how to hunt for their food.

Eventually they allowed the young to eat the seal as a reward for their learning.

It was just incredible, I was amazed at their intelligence and teamwork!

So let's look at some other behavior known to these whales:

Orcas when hunting marine animals will swim fast toward the beach and actually surface on the beach to catch their prey.

Orca Behaviors: Breaching

Orcas Breeching
Orcas Breeching

Breaching occurs when a whale, flips itself entirely out of the water, twists in midair, and lands loudly on its side.

We had the privilege of watching Orcas Breaching on the Puget Sound last August, it was incredible. Unfortunately the memory stays in my head and not on a photo, every time one would breach I would bring my camera up and catch the large splash in the water!

Video of Orcas Breaching in Resurrection Bay, AK

Orca Spy Hopping

Orca spy hopping
Orca spy hopping | Source

Though there was no seal stranded on an iceberg, when we went on a whale watching tour on the Puget Sound last August, we were so lucky.

We not only saw Orcas, but we saw what they call a superPod of Orcas, three pods meeting and greeting in the Puget Sound.

We got to witness all sorts of the behavior of the Orcas. Above is a photo I took of Orcas spyhopping.

Orca Tail Slapping

Orca Tail Slapping
Orca Tail Slapping | Source

Orcas slap the water or prey with their tail.

Tail slapping when prey is not present is thought to be a form of communication.

I think that is what they were doing in this photo I took on the Puget Sound, they seemed to be communicating.

Where to Find Killer Whales or Orcas

Where can you find Killer Whales, beside's Sea World?
Where can you find Killer Whales, beside's Sea World? | Source

Killer Whales Are in Every Ocean on Earth

There normal range is in coastal waters where there food is plentiful, but they are also found out in the open ocean.

Orcas are more plentiful in the icier waters of the Arctic and Antarctic. Which makes for a photographers dream with the deep blue water, with the white snow and ice for a background.

There are three pods known to frequent the Puget Sound in Washington. The J, K, and L pods. J pod seems to stay there most all year, the K and L pods leave at certain times of the year.

Two Orcas Versus Seals

What Does a Killer Whale Eat?

What does a Killer Whale eat? - Food for Orca
What does a Killer Whale eat? - Food for Orca | Source

What do Killer whales eat? Well that varies on what is believed to be the different subspecies of the Orca. They haven't officially named the subspecies but they have been called type A, B, or C. More commonly they are named by their behavior, they can actually be identified by distinct differences in their appearance, and there are genetic differences between the three groups.

There are the resident Killer Whales. These whales stay in their home area, mostly where their food is. They eat a diet of mostly fish and squid. Salmon seems to be their favorite in the summertime when the fish are plentiful. They live in large pods dominated by the matriarch of the family. They don't travel far from their home. It has been noted that the female whales have a rounded dorsal fin tip that ends in a sharp corner and the saddle patch may have some black in with the gray.

A superpod gathering of all three pods on the Puget Sound, two transient pods and the resident pod.

Then there is the transient population of Killer whales, these whales travel longer distances. They eat a diet of marine animals; Harbour seals, Sea lions, Dall's porpoises, Harbour porpoises, Pacific Whitesided dolphins, Grey, Minke, baleen whales, other toothed whales, walruses, and occasionally sea otters. It has also been noted that the females of this subspecies have dorsal fins that are more triangular and pointed than those of residents as well as the saddle patch is further forward in the transient subspecies and are more solidly gray in color.

There is a third subspecies of whales called the offshore Orcas. These whales are believed to eat a diet of fish, sharks, and turtles. The travel in large groups or pods up to sixty in numbers. The females have a more continuous rounded dorsal fin. This group has not been studied as much as the other two, due to their proximity from shore.

A Superpod Gathering of Orcas

A superpod gathering of Orcas: two transient pods and a resident pod
A superpod gathering of Orcas: two transient pods and a resident pod | Source

Orca Hunting Spectacle

The Lifespan and Reproduction of the Killer Whale

Females Orcas become sexually mature at around six to fifteen years of age. The mature younger in captivity than they do in the wild.

Males become sexually mature around ten to fifteen years of age, but do not normally breed until twenty one years of age. Though in captivity they have witnessed a male successfully breeding at the age of eight.

The females breed with multiple male partners, they are polygamous.

After breeding the gestation period varies from fifteen to eighteen months.

The mothers calve, with a single offspring, about once every three to five years. Most births observed have been tail first, but head first births have also been witnessed.

Newborn mortality is said to be high, in the wild nearly half of all calves don't make it to their first birthday.

Mother Orcas produce milk and the calves will nurse for up to two years and start to eating solid food at about twelve months of age.

One point I found interesting is the family bond of the Orca residents. All the resident Orca pod members, including males of all ages, help care for the younger calves.

Cows breed until the age of 40, the average cow raises five offspring.

The average lifespan of a female is around fifty years, but they may live into their seventies and eighties in some rare instances.

The average lifespan of a male orca is thirty years with rare longevity of up to sixty years of age.

There is told the tale of one male that lived to at least eight nine years old. He was known as "Old Tom" and was spotted every winter between 1843 and 1932 off New South Wales, Australia.

Healthy adult Orcas have no natural enemies. The young, and weak may fall prey to sharks.

Disease, parasites and stranding on the shore attribute to the longevity of the killer whale.

Your Thoughts? Were the Orcas Playing or Mating?

Orcas courting
Orcas courting | Source

What do you think these Orcas were doing? I was not sure if they were playing or mating, but they seemed very gentle and happy doing it.

Two Orcas Lifting a Baby Orca to the Surface

Two Orcas lifting a baby Orca to the surface, a heart-touching display of caring
Two Orcas lifting a baby Orca to the surface, a heart-touching display of caring | Source

The other behavior we were privilege to witness when we saw the superpods of Orcas on the Puget Sound were things that we expected and hoped to see.

But the photo above shows a very special moment that was so heart touching it not only took my breath away but brought tears to my eyes and still does.

Two Orcas lifted this baby Orca to the surface of the water to breathe. Just so beautiful and touching!

Killer Whale Pod (Hosking-U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Killer Whale Pod (Hosking-U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Killer Whale Pod (Hosking-U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

A Mystery About the Killer Whale in Alaska

Sounds of the Orca

Communications and sounds of the Killer Whale
Communications and sounds of the Killer Whale | Source

Killer Whales use sounds to communicate and to "echo-locate."

The whales make all different sounds including whistles, echolocation clicks, pulsed calls, low-frequency pops, and jaw claps that sound like moans, trills, grunts, whistles, squeaks, and creaking doors. These sounds vary in length and volume and the pattern of the sounds.

They make these sounds by moving air between the nasal sacs and their blowhole.

It really makes one wonder what they are saying to each other, doesn't it?

When using their echolocating, the clicks they use much like a sonar, sending out a series of clicks that bounce off objects and send them back to the whale, letting them know how close something is to their proximity. It also tells them how large it is, what it's shape is, and how fast it is moving.

Each individual group of killer whales, has a distinct dialect that is used by all the whales in that pod.

Physical Characteristics of the Killer Whale

Shaped a bit like a torpedo, the killer whale can travel quickly through water.

They vary in size, the male Orca are larger than the females. The males average is nineteen to twenty two feet long, and weighs between 9000 and 12000 lbs.

The largest male Killer Whale ever record was a whopping thirty two feet long, and weighed in at 22,000 lbs. That is huge!

The females range in length from 16 to 19 feet and usually weigh around 2500 lbs.

The Orcas have very distinct coloring, their black is very black, their white very white, with a patch of gray behind the dorsal fin, called a "saddle." The white oval spot behind their eye is appropriately called an "eyespot."

Which brings us to the dorsal fin, the tall fin that you most often see sticking up out of the water is called the dorsal fin. They have a blowhole just behind their "melon," which is their head. Their rostum is by their mouth (don't ask me why it is called that). Baby orcas if they retain any hair at all it will often be around their rostum.

Orca Dorsal Fins

Orca dorsel fins
Orca dorsel fins | Source

Orcas Have Digits Inside Their Flippers

Their "fluke" is the flat part of their tail that propels them through the water so efficiently. They don't swim with a side to side motion, it is an up and down motion.

They have a flipper, like an arm on each side, called a "pectoral flipper."

The really cool little bit of trivia on the Killer whale that I found is what lies inside their pectoral flipper. Inside their flipper lies their skeletal digits. They actually have five digits inside their flippers, much like the human hand.

Orca in Prince William Sound (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Orca in Prince William Sound - (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Orca in Prince William Sound - (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The Orca's guests can sign in here, if they would like - The Orca or Killer whale Guestbook

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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I never tire of it ... particularly love it in the off-season when it's less touisrty (although their numbers have been down the past few years). Love to explore outside the Inner Harbour and all the neighborhoods, etc.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Fabulous lens! These creatures are now thought to be as intelligent as - if not actually more so than - Dolphins, and this post is jam-packed with great information. Wonderful!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Orcas are my favorite animal and i love how well you described the information about them. :)

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Truly an amazing animal

    • TriciaLymeMom profile image


      7 years ago

      Orcas are amazing and beautiful animals. Thanks for the great lens, will be visiting it again.

    • kevin-collins profile image


      7 years ago

      Awesome information. The videos are amazing!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      This is great. Orca are my favourite animals, along with other dolphins. They're really intelligent animals and you have highlighted that here. They display amazing social skills and teamwork. Have you seen killer whales vs Great White Shark? The whales won. Other dolphins, particularly bottle-nosed dolphins are really intelligent too. Some can even recognise themselves in a mirror.

      Your pictures are really great too. I love the videos. Have you watched them on Frozen Planet?

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Great lens!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Great Pictures!

    • adragast24 profile image


      7 years ago

      This lens is beautiful, it should get a purple star! Just a small thing. When you ask the question "What do you think these Orcas were doing?": there should be a poll, a comment box or a debate box, not just a text box (we cannot answer the question).

    • Kathryn Beach profile image

      Kathryn Wallace 

      8 years ago from Greenbank, WA, USA

      I live in orca territory in Washington state, thank you for the thoughtful lens about these endangered creatures.

    • profile image

      Allens happy le 

      8 years ago

      Great info on this lens, and I also like the collection of videos you have here. I think you should say clearly that Orcas are dolphins, not merely related to them. It's been my experience that most people get that wrong :)

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      great pictures! enjoyed reading!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Awesome photos and videos. Nicely informative ... thanks!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Great pictures of the Orcas in the wild!

    • BryanLSC profile image


      8 years ago

      Great lens on my favourite animals! Really enjoyed the lens! Thanks for the great work on orcas. They are just so intelligent, aren't they? They are simply the top predator in the seas, nothing beats them, not even the most feared Great White! Orcas rock!

    • LisaAuch1 profile image

      Lisa Auch 

      8 years ago from Scotland

      I would just love to go on a boat and see these magnificent sea creatures, i have got lost in your animal pages that are so passionately put together Blessed

    • GonnaFly profile image


      8 years ago from Australia

      I am fascinated by these magnificent creatures. This lens has been blessed and added to my animal alphabet lens.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Awesome lens! Very nicely researched!

    • katiecolette profile image


      8 years ago

      We really enjoyed Killer Whale performances at Sea World - truly amazing animals!

    • CastleRoyLisa profile image


      9 years ago from Rhode Island

      they are so beuatiful

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I love orcas and try to get out and see them as much as possible, here on San Juan Island. Great info!

    • jackieb99 profile image


      9 years ago

      I love Killers Whales! They are so beautiful.

    • sukkran trichy profile image

      sukkran trichy 

      9 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu

      i enjoyed this lens. especially the videos are superb.

    • Kailua-KonaGirl profile image


      9 years ago from New York

      Being from Hawaii, I am very attuned to marine life and you have done a wonderful job researching and creating this orca lens!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      So many lovely images showcasing this lovely animal.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I totally enjoyed this lens! Great job, thank you for the experience.

    • squid-janices7 profile image


      9 years ago

      You have some amazing photos and videos on this lens! We just went whale watching off Vancouver Island and saw a pod of killer lots of great pictures that I'll have to share on Squidoo some day. They are amazing creatures.

    • annieangel1 profile image


      9 years ago from Yorkshire, England

      great lens.

    • JanieceTobey profile image


      9 years ago

      Oh, I love whales!! What gorgeous orca photos!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Linda, you have done a great job on this lens. The images and videos are awe inspiring.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Linda, you have done a great job on this lens. The images and videos are awe inspiring.

    • Ramkitten2000 profile image

      Deb Kingsbury 

      9 years ago from Flagstaff, Arizona

      I once went on a cruise to Alaska with my parents, and we had the pleasure of watching the Orcas breaching nearly every day. It's one thing to see these incredible creatures at an aquarium, but seeing them in the wild is just breathtaking.

    • Sylvestermouse profile image

      Cynthia Sylvestermouse 

      9 years ago from United States

      Orca's are simply beautiful and graceful creatures. Totally Awesome!

    • profile image

      callinsky lm 

      9 years ago

      Very cool. Lots of wonderful information. I must have taken you a long time to put it together. Kudos to you.

    • paperfacets profile image

      Sherry Venegas 

      9 years ago from La Verne, CA

      I loved my stay here with the orca. Very well done.

    • emmaklarkins profile image


      9 years ago

      Awesome pics! Such beautiful, majestic animals!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I love Orcas. They are such beautiful creatures. Blessed by an Angel.

    • VarietyWriter2 profile image


      9 years ago

      Great lens. Beautiful animals. Blessed by a SquidAngel :)

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      What an awesome lens. I will put it in my featured lenses on my Festival of Whales lens. You have definitely enhanced the beauty of the Orca whale with this lens. 5 Orcas and a featured lens widget.

    • Demaw profile image


      10 years ago

      Wonderful lens, great pictures.5*

    • PNWtravels profile image

      Vicki Green 

      10 years ago from Wandering the Pacific Northwest USA

      Great lens about this magnificent creature!

    • ElizaRayner profile image

      Eliza Rayner 

      10 years ago from Boulder, Colorado

      beautiful page, Orcas are amazing. I have added this page to my newest - a few of my favorite things. plus 5 stars

    • ronpass lm profile image

      ronpass lm 

      10 years ago

      Fascinating lens - it was great to learn about the killer whales' habits and behavior. Thanks for putting this very informative lens together - very eyecatching.

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 

      10 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      Love this and it is filled with such great information about the Orca. I am going to share it with our grandson who really enjoyed Shamu on Our Florida Vacation. Lensrolling.

    • religions7 profile image


      11 years ago

      Great lens. Great pictures.

    • piedromolinero profile image


      11 years ago

      Orcas are such fascinating animals. Thank you for making such a wonderful lens with a lot of information and pictures.

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      I am amazed how close to shore they get. A wonderful lens with an amazing choice of photographs.


    • profile image


      11 years ago

      They're beautiful and so is this lens.

      Nice job.


    • WhitU4ever profile image


      11 years ago

      Wow... these animals are fascinating. I've seen whales out by Catalina Island once. They're beautiful. There's quite a bit of information here... a great lens for anyone interested in learning more about Orcas. Great job on this lens. I can tell you spent a lot of time on it.

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Fascinating, 5 star lens! I especially enjoyed reading the section about their common behavior. Awesome photographs, too.

    • profile image

      The Homeopath 

      11 years ago

      I took a whale watching excursion in the San Juans a few years ago. They are so amazing in the wild, just beyond words.

    • dahlia369 profile image


      11 years ago

      Go orcas! :)

    • dreamsgate lm profile image

      dreamsgate lm 

      11 years ago

      Just lovely. I learned a lot about orcas, thank you.

    • Robyco profile image


      11 years ago

      Great looking lens, stunning photos, would love to have an opportunity to see these in the wild.

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      This is a beautiful lens about a fascinating animal. Great photos and lots of information.

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      A well put together lens on this. nice pictures.

    • SusannaDuffy profile image

      Susanna Duffy 

      11 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Fabulous creatures, fabulous lens. I wish i could give you more than 5*

    • MarcoG profile image


      11 years ago from Edinburgh

      Such a beautiful lens, such beautiful creatures :)

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Very interesting lens...

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Great Lens I love Reading about Nature


    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Wow, amazing lens! I'd love to see an orca in the wild one day - not sure about diving with them though!

    • profile image

      YourCover Mama 

      11 years ago

      beautiful creatures, and beautiful lens! you always put sooo much work into your lens! great job :o)

    • dahlia369 profile image


      11 years ago

      I'm also fascinated by killer whales - they are amazing creatures... Awesome lens! :)

    • CherylK profile image

      Cheryl Kohan 

      11 years ago from Arizona

      This is a wonderful lens. I was especially interested because of the report of those seven missing Orcas from Puget Sound. Incredibly sad, isn't it? They are beautiful creatures.

    • RuthCoffee profile image

      Ruth Coffee 

      11 years ago from Zionsville, Indiana

      Wonderful lens, really enjoyed the video clips!

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Hi Linda: Wonderful Orca lens. Photos go great against the blue background. Lots of interesting info. This lens is sea-worthy! Very artistic. ~Music Resource~

    • Stazjia profile image

      Carol Fisher 

      11 years ago from Warminster, Wiltshire, UK

      Fabulous lens, it's got it all, beautiful pictures and information.

    • Rich-H profile image


      11 years ago from Surrey, United Kingdom

      Beautiful and informative lens. One to return to. 5*s

    • nightbear lm profile image

      nightbear lm 

      11 years ago

      I agree with Veronica. I spent a lot of time on this lens and I really learned a lot. I love the videos, although I have to admit I couldn't watch the hunting ones, I can't handle any animal getting hurt, even though I understand the whole food chain thing, I just don't have to watch it. But really really beautiful lens.

    • nightbear lm profile image

      nightbear lm 

      11 years ago

      I agree with Veronica. I spent a lot of time on this lens and I really learned a lot. I love the videos, although I have to admit I couldn't watch the hunting ones, I can't handle any animal getting hurt, even though I understand the whole food chain thing, I just don't have to watch it. But really really beautiful lens.

    • Hekepei profile image


      11 years ago

      This is a very beautiful lens. :-)

    • ArtByLinda profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Hoxie 

      11 years ago from Idaho

      [in reply to lakeerieartists and vbright1-5]

      Thank you both so much, I appreciate you! Linda

    • VBright profile image


      11 years ago

      I've spent more time on this lens than I ever have any other! Excellent job! The videos didn't even need sound for me to enjoy them!

    • Paula Atwell profile image

      Paula Atwell 

      11 years ago from Cleveland, OH

      Beautiful lens Linda.


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