Six Quick Orca Facts
Orcas are also known as killer whales; this name might make them sound dangerous, but they are usually friendly to humans. The only recorded fatal attacks on people have been from orcas that have been kept in captivity. However, it’s worth remembering that orcas are apex predators who are able to take down some of the largest marine animals. They can kill and eat sea lions and even other whales!
Their massive teeth can grow up to 10 cm (4 inches) in length and they are easily identifiable by their black and white colouring. Let’s dive into some more amazing facts about this impressive marine mammal.
1. They’re big!
Orcas have a very long dorsal fin (that’s the fin that is visible on a whale’s back). This is indicative of the size of the rest of their body, which is large. The body of a killer whale is cylindrical and is aerodynamic thanks to the fact that it tapers at both ends.
Orcas can weight as much as six tons and grow up to between 23 to 32 feet in length – nearly as long as a school bus!
2. They’re not actually whales
Despite their nickname, orcas are actually part of the dolphin family. The name comes from back when sailors used to see them and not know what they were. They referred to them as “whale killers” because they were known to attack large sea creatures. Over the years, this nickname became “killer whale” and the name stuck. In Spanish, orcas are also called ballena asesina, which translates as “assassin whale.”
3. But they are killers
Orcas are at the very top of their food chain. The only species that hunts orcas are humans. They have been reported to eat fish, sharks, rays, squid, octopuses and even seabirds. They hunt in pods, sometimes numbering 40 whales at a time. Together they use teamwork to hunt down large prey.
They are very clever hunters that use a number of ingenious techniques to catch their prey.
4. They’re sociable
Orcas are very sociable and live among their family in packs. A pack of orcas is called a pod. There are two different types of orca pod:
Resident pod: This pod is the least aggressive and the whales within it usually hunt fish together.
Transient pod: This is more like a wolf pack. The whales are more aggressive and help each other to hunt much larger prey.
Both types of pod are very effective at hunting. Whales can communicate with each other by making distinct sounds. In a way, it’s like they are talking to each other. Members of a pod are able to recognise these different sounds from long distances.
They also use something called “echolocation” to talk to each other during a hunt. When they do this, sounds bounce off objects and thenback to the whale. This helps them to know where something is and how big it is in size. This is ideal for hunting down prey.
5. A baby orca is called a calf
A female orca will usually give birth every three to 10 years. They will give birth to one calf at a time. It takes about 17 months before a killer whale will give birth and baby calfs measure about eight and a half feet in the length. They can weigh between 260 and 350 lbs. A calf will stay with its mother until fully grown.
6. They’re movie stars
Killer whales feature in a number of Hollywood films and documentaries. Orca (1977) is a horror that makes killer whales seem like dangerous man-eaters. In reality, as we’ve already discussed, this is not true!
Free Willy (1993) tells the story of a boy who becomes friend with an orca in captivity. The movie was so successful that its orca star, Keiko, became famous. Keiko was eventually released back into the wild to live his life free in the open ocean, just like in the movie.
Finally, Blackfish (2013) is a documentary about how truly awful it is to be still keeping orcas in captivity.