They are also called ‘killer whales’ for their ability to take down large animals, such as whales



They are also called ‘killer whales’ for their ability to take down large animals, such as whales

Population 50,000
10% population decline since 2005

Orcas, or killer whales, are the largest members of the dolphin family and among the most powerful predators in the ocean. Their striking black-and-white coloration is not only iconic but also critical to their hunting strategy. The dark back and light underside help break up their outline in the water, a phenomenon known as countershading, which provides them with an advantage by camouflaging them while they hunt.

Orcas are characterized by their robust, elongated bodies, which can reach lengths of up to 32 feet (about 9.8 meters) in males, and large dorsal fins that are especially prominent in adult males, standing as tall as 6 feet (1.8 meters). These physical attributes, combined with their formidable teeth, make orcas adept at capturing a wide range of prey.

Social structure is a defining characteristic of orca populations, with individuals living in highly organized groups known as pods. These pods can vary in size from a few individuals to groups of up to 50 or more and are often led by matriarchs – the oldest and often most experienced females. The social bonds within these groups are incredibly strong, with members cooperating in hunting, caring for the young, and teaching the juveniles the skills necessary for survival.

Often dubbed the “wolves of the sea,” orcas employ sophisticated hunting techniques reminiscent of wolf pack strategies. Their diet is remarkably diverse, including seals, dolphins, smaller whales, sea lions, sea birds, turtlessquids, and even large sharks. Orcas have been observed using coordinated tactics to encircle and trap their prey, a testament to their intelligence and social cohesion.

Orcas are found in the world’s oceans, from the frigid Arctic and Antarctic regions to tropical seas. They do not have a universal diet; their feeding habits are often dictated by their geographical location and prey availability.


Population est.
Antarctic ocean
Arctic Ocean
Atlantic ocean
Indian ocean
Pacific ocean
Tropical Pacific
Pacific ocean
Cooler northeast Pacific

Recent updates

March 2023: The Canadian government announced plans to establish a new marine protected area in the waters off the coast of British Columbia, which will provide important habitat for orcas as well as other marine wildlife.

Jan 2023: A new study published in the journal Conservation Biology found that the decline of Chinook salmon, a key prey species for many orca populations, is a major threat to the survival of these animals.

Sep 2022: US Congress has proposed a bill that would put an end to whale captivity in aquariums and theme parks across the United States. The bill would bar the importation, exportation, and breeding of whales for public display. It specifically targets orcas, beluga, pilot, and false killer whales, of which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has listed 66 currently held in captivity in this country.  

Did you know?

  • Orcas are the second fastest marine mammals.
  • Many orcas in coastal waters don’t migrate; they occasionally travel for food.

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Terrestrial / Aquatic

Altricial / Precocial

Polygamous / Monogamous

Dimorphic (size) / Monomorphic

Active: Diurnal / Nocturnal

Social behavior: Solitary / Pack / Herd / Group

Diet: Carnivore / Herbivore / Omnivore / Piscivorous / Insectivore

Migratory: Yes / No

Domesticated: Yes / No

Dangerous: Yes / No