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”).
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. They are apex predators, thus, are intrinsically connected to their marine ecosystems. 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. They can also be found in warmer waters, including tropical, subtropical and offshore waters.
Females are typically able to reproduce between 11-13 years of age, and over a course of 40 years, could give birth to 4-6 calves. Males mature between 12-14 years of age, during which time their dorsal fins begin to straighten. Orcas give birth to a single offspring, with other females in the pod working together to protect 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. They hunt in groups, utilizing 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).
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.
In the wild, orcas face a number of threats including degrading marine ecosystems, food shortages, being hunted for meat and captured for captive display.
Orcas in Captivity
For 50 million years, dolphins have perfected the right methodology to live and thrive in the ocean. Capturing these sentient marine mammals out of their wild environments and into manmade tanks is a death sentence for orcas. There is nothing educational to be learned from watching dolphins perform tricks for food. They are not “ambassadors” as marine parks would lead you to believe, but victims of the captivity industry.