12 Reasons Why the Killer Whale Is the Ocean’s Top Predator!



12 Reasons Why the Killer Whale Is the Ocean’s Top Predator!


Killer Whales Taken at Marineland, Niagara Falls. Image credit Robert Dewar
Killer Whales Taken at Marineland, Niagara Falls.
By Robert Dewar cc2.0

Think the shark is the top predator in the world’s oceans? Think again.


While sharks are indeed fierce predators which relentlessly hunt fish, seals, dolphins, small whales, sea turtles, squid, crab and sea birds whenever there is an opportunity, and while they are known to attack humans, sharks actually fall prey to another creature of the sea — the killer whale.

That’s right. There is a reason why this marine mammal is so named. It may not be a whale — it is actually a dolphin — but it definitely is a killer. Here are twelve reasons why the killer whale is at the top of the food chain in the ocean.

1. Size

Killer whale (Orcinus orca)
Killer whale (Orcinus orca)
By Hafiz Issadeen cc2.0


Killer whales are the largest dolphins. The largest killer whale ever caught was 32 feet long (9.8 meters) and weighed 11 tons (9979 kilograms) — that’s nearly as long as a bus and as heavy as a full-grown African elephant! Normally, killer whales range from 16 to 26 feet (4.9 to 7.9 meters) long and weigh 3 to 6 tons (2722 to 5443 kilograms). In comparison, the great white shark is 13 to 17 feet (4 to 5.2 meters) long and weighs 1 to 3 tons (907 to 2722 kilograms).

Because of the size of the killer whale, it does not fall prey to any other creature in the ocean. Even people have rarely hunted killer whales — they were more likely to join with them in a whale hunt. It is too big even for the carnivorous, toothed whales (that are two to three times their size) to eat: these whales usually eat fish and squid. Instead, these whales sometimes become prey for the killer whale. Indeed, the killer whale has no natural predators; its cause of death often old age — at 80 years or more — or sickness.

The size of the killer whale also helps it during hunting. It uses its large body to ram against prey, stunning them and making them easier to kill.

2. Teeth

Taiji Whale Museum.
Taiji Whale Museum. Taken on July 29, 2007 at 11:48 JST, Wakayama
By m-louis cc2.0

Each adult killer whale has a total of 40 to 56 teeth at any time, each about 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) long and 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) in diameter. Unlike sharks, which grow new teeth whenever the old ones fall out, killer whales have only one set of teeth. Because of this, the teeth are very strong and completely covered in thick enamel.

While the killer whale’s teeth are sharp, they are not made for piercing or cutting — they’re made for grasping and tearing. There are gaps between the teeth, with the upper teeth falling into the gaps of the lower teeth. Therefore, when the killer whale’s mouth is closed, it is able to maintain a powerful grip. Also, the front teeth are inclined forward and outward, preventing the killer whale from getting hurt when its prey tries to jerk free. Killer whales are well-known for grabbing large sea mammals like seals and sea lions straight off the ice.

3. Tail

One Ocean (Killer Whale Show) @ Sea World
One Ocean (Killer Whale Show) @ Sea World
By Tammy Lo cc2.0


The killer whale has a powerful tail, which not only helps it swim but also helps it to catch prey. With its strong tail, it can force prey to the surface, strike it or even send it flying into the air. In fact, there is a report that one killer whale launched a sea lion twenty feet into the air.

4. Killer Senses

Killer whale
Image credit: spDuchamp cc2.0


Killer whales may not have a sense of smell but they have an excellent sense of hearing, able to hear sound frequencies (pitch) at a range of 18 hertz to 120 kilohertz. In comparison, humans can only hear frequencies within 20 Hz (a low rumble) to 20 kHz (a shrill whistle), cats can hear from 55 Hz to 77 kHz and bats can hear from 10 kHz to 115 kHz.

Killer whales also have good vision, both in and out of the water, far better than that of land mammals, and their sense of touch is well-developed, as well, and is especially sensitive around the eyes and mouth.

5. Speed & Agility

One Ocean (Killer Whale Show) @ Sea World
One Ocean (Killer Whale Show) @ Sea World
By Tammy Lo cc2.0

In spite of their large bodies, killer whales can swim up to 28 miles (45 kilometers) per hour. They can ride waves and can “porpoise” (continuously soar out of and back in to the water) in order to save energy. They can also breach (land on the surface on their side or back with a huge splash) and spy-hop (come out of the water vertically, as if standing). They can also roll to one side on the surface of the water while flapping their fins. They can even jump up to 15 feet (4.6 meters) out of the water! Sometimes they just do this to have fun, but they can also do this to deliberately land on prey.

6. Camouflage

Image Credit: Don Richards

Killer whales are black on top and white on the bottom. Viewed from the top, they blend in with the ocean, and viewed from the bottom, they blend in with the bright surface. A killer whale’s coloration also masks its shape, and during the day, when the sunlight is blinding, prevents prey from recognizing its presence until it’s too late.

7. Various Hunting Techniques

Do you want more evidence of the killer whale’s intelligence? Killer whales have various hunting tricks up their sleeve and they know just which one to use in each situation.

For example, when hunting schools of fish like salmon, killer whales practice “carousel feeding”. This means that they force the fish to form a tight ball, by blowing bubbles or flashing their white sides, then they slap them with their tails. The fish are killed a dozen at a time and are eaten one by one.

When hunting sharks and rays, killer whales induce tonic immobility. What this means is that they simply hold the sharks and rays upside down and prevent them from moving, for about 15 minutes. Some sharks need to move to breathe, so when they cannot move, they die.
When hunting seals and penguins, killer whales sometimes use “wave hunting”. They swim en masse toward an iceberg and then dive suddenly, flicking their tails as they go. In this way they create waves that wash over the ice, forcing the seals and penguins into the water, where they are grabbed and eaten. They can also rock or overturn small ice floes.

7. Intelligence

After sperm whales, killer whales have the largest brains among mammals and boy, do they use them. They can use tools, they easily adapt to different situations and they communicate and show “emotions”. In fact, the social side of their brain, as a percentage, is larger than ours.

In Marineland, Ontario, one killer whale was observed setting a trap for gulls. It would throw up some of its food, which would then attract the gulls for the killer whale to eat. It did not take long for other killer whales to copy the trick, proving that killer whales can learn from experience, whether their own or others’.

8. Social Structure

Alone, a killer whale is already an able hunter, but what makes killer whales really fearsome predators is that they hunt in groups. Indeed, killer whales have been referred to as the “wolves of the sea”, since they live and hunt in groups (called pods). They attack groups of prey, such as schools of fish and groups of swimming penguins, or large prey such as baleen whales, from various angles, taking turns to slowly but surely secure the meal.

9. Communication

All social animals have sophisticated communication skills, and killer whales are no different. They communicate using whistles, clicks and pulsed calls, with each pod having their own dialect. Calves start out having high-pitched calls that sound like screams, but eventually learn the calls of the other members of their pod.

11. Echolocation

Combine an acute sense of hearing with complex communication skills and what do you get? Echolocation.

Echolocation is the ability to locate objects by producing sounds and listening to their echoes. In the case of killer whales, they produce clicks and then interpret the resulting echoes. By doing this, they can constantly determine each other’s location and know when there is prey nearby, even in low visibility.

12. Passing On the Knowledge

Mother and baby killer whales photographed off back of Zodiac while on whale-watching tour in harbour just off Victoria, B.C., 2008.
Photograph by S.E.Ingraham cc3.0

Killer whales pass on everything they know to their young, including all their hunting skills and secrets. They keep the young close, allowing them to watch, as they hunt. Sometimes, they also catch prey, especially through beaching — pushing themselves up on the beach — and then release the prey in the water for the young to try to catch. In this way, the hunt goes on from generation to generation and killer whales remain the ocean’s fiercest killers for as long as they exist, or until evolution comes up with a way to topple them from the top of the food chain.

What do you know?

Think you remember what you’ve read? Try out the Killer Whale Quiz!





  1. I hate to be that guy but orcas are the second top predator. The real top predator is the sperm whale. Bull sperm whales are know to not only challenge packs of orcas but to steal their kills. Sperm whales are not only larger but they travel in packs and hunt larger and more dangerous game than that of orcas. Another testament to their claim as apec predator is that they are some of the only known whales to sleep.

    • “Sperm whales are not only larger but they travel in packs and hunt larger and more dangerous game than that of orcas” Sperm whales eat giant squid, but orcas eat great white sharks!
      “Another testament to their claim as apec predator is that they are some of the only known whales to sleep.”
      I guess sperm whales kill prey in their sleep??



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