Orcas, or killer whales, are one of the most recognizable aquatic mammals in the world. Well-known by their distinctive black and white coloring, orcas were popularized by both family-friendly films like Free Willy and controversial documentaries like Blackfish. Social, intelligent creatures, orcas swim in tight-knit family pods. Each pod has a unique culture, with hunting tactics and skills passed down through generations. And, despite popular opinion, orcas aren’t actually whales – they’re actually the largest member of the dolphin family!
Orcas are found in every single ocean in the world, and have a reputation for being merciless, fearsome predators. But why is that? Let’s talk about 20 reasons orcas are the scariest predators in the sea.
20. Orcas Are Extremely Intelligent
Much like other dolphin species, orcas are exceptionally intelligent. They’re one of only a handful of non-human species that are able to recognize themselves in a mirror, and they have the second-biggest brain of all aquatic mammals. More than that, they have an EQ of 2.5, essentially the same as chimpanzees.
Of course, it’s not just the size of the brain that matters – it’s what the orca does with it. And, as it turns out, orcas do quite a lot! They learn their distinct “language,” and are capable of both recognizing and learning other “dialects.” Their echolocation skills are extraordinary, with some scientists speculating that killer whales may be able to do more than just distinguish a general type of prey. They may actually be able to detect a specific species! For example, some orcas’ favorite food is Chinook salmon. Instead of just detecting “fish,” these skilled hunters may be able to track Chinook salmon specifically.
Speaking of specific populations, orcas have several distinct ecotypes that differ almost completely from one another. These different groups have different dialects, hunting patterns, preferred prey, preferred living area, and more. Resident orcas, for example, are largely fish-eaters. They hunt salmon, mackerel, cod, and more, whereas transient orcas – or traveling pods – eat aquatic mammals like seals, Minke whales, and even gray whale calves.
However, even within these distinct groups, orcas break down into more specific, individualized preferences. While Alaskan orcas are generalized fish eaters, Northern and Southern resident orca pods seem to eat salmon nearly exclusively. Some of these regional groups even choose to only eat a specific type of salmon, whale, or seal.
Okay, this fact about orcas, or killer whales, might seem like common sense. Nevertheless, it aids to their killer apex instincts. Despite being the largest dolphin species globally, killer whales are smaller in scale compared to other whales. However, they don’t let their size stop them; they use their speed to make up for any lack of bulk. Orcas have been recorded swimming as fast as 54mph, though their average speed is around 35mph.
In addition to bursts of speed, orcas are generally quite fast in covering distance. An orca pod can swim nearly 100 miles a day, hunting for food. Furthermore, when they find prey, they can use their formidable speed to close distance quickly! Some of their hunting techniques involve strategically using their rate to form waves, disorient fish, and even pull prey directly off the beach.
Great white sharks are considered by many to be the apex predator of the ocean. Large and built for speed, great whites are ideally adapted to their environment. And yet, a study tracking the movements of great white sharks proved that these creatures are afraid of killer whales. A pod of whales moved through the sharks’ territory off the coast of California. The great whites evacuated the area immediately, and some didn’t return for months.
There’s speculation that this is because the orca has figured out a unique way to hunt great whites. When turned upside down, great whites enter a state called “tonic immobility,” essentially falling into a trance. Orcas have been seen taking advantage of this state, flipping great whites upside down and holding them there until they drown before consuming the shark’s liver – and leaving the rest.
Sperm whales are the largest toothed aquatic mammal, growing over 50 feet long and weighing over 60 tons. They often hunt in the deeper reaches of the ocean, and can hold their breath for over 2 hours. And yet, killer whales have been observed hunting them, and sperm whales have been observed exhibiting almost fearful responses to the orca pods. Instead of going on the offensive, sperm whales under assault by a pod of killer whales group up into a defensive position!
In one such case off the coast of Sri Lanka, a group of just 5 killer whales took on a half-dozen sperm whales, using their incredible speed to bash the sperm whales from all directions, biting them whenever they had the chance. And despite the sperm whales likely being able to kill a killer whale with the force of their tail slaps, the sperm whales didn’t seem to be fighting. After over half an hour, it appeared that the orcas had separated a juvenile sperm whale from the pack and either drowned or eaten it.
In a move one marine biologist calls the “karate chop,” orcas slam their tails full-force down onto a prey animal, stunning or killing it in one ferocious blow. They’ve likely used those same tails to drive their food to the surface in the first place, creating a vortex that forcibly propels their target upwards – whether the target wants to go or not. With this method, the orca doesn’t even have to come in physical contact with the prey, which considerably reduces the danger that’s inherent with hunting larger ocean mammals or predatory creatures like mako and great white sharks.
In the case of sharks, the killer whale will use the “karate chop” move to stun the shark, then flip it upside down, paralyzing and drowning it. They use this move with many types of slower-moving prey, like seals, sea lions, and the aforementioned sharks. Perhaps the most interesting thing to note about this method is that the killer whales created and mastered the technique specifically to hunt creatures most other sea life doesn’t mess with, like sharks! And the “karate chop” is passed down from generation to generation, with adolescent orcas practicing and observing mature members of their pod for years before attempting the maneuver on their own.
Millions of years ago, it’s likely that orcas started splitting into regional and prey-specific groups to avoid competing with each other for food. Because of this, orca family groups started developing regional dialects, with each group creating their own “language” that was unique and distinct from other groups of orcas. Even within the regional dialects, some pods of whales could have what might be considered an “accent,” with certain sounds being distinct to the pod and not emulated in other pods in the region.
The unique dialects can be as specific as belonging to just one family group, or “pod,” of orcas, passed down through the generations, or can cover wider regional areas with only a few variations between pods. This distinctive split makes orcas incredibly efficient hunters, as they’re not competing with others of their own species for the same prey. However, should an orca from one group spend time with a pod of orcas from another group, the “outsider” killer whale can learn the dialect, much like a human can learn a new language. Killer whales have even been observed mimicking the sounds of other species of dolphin, indicating the potential to learn communication outside their own species.
13. Killer Whales Are the Most Common Mammal, Besides Humans
Orcas exist in every ocean on earth, from the tropics to the Arctic. They’re incredibly efficient at adapting to their surroundings and taking advantage of what prey their territory offers them. Different pods that live in the same area may even adjust to target different species so as not to compete with each other.
Sure, there are only about 50,000 orcas in the wild. Nevertheless, their far-flung territorial spread means that orcas have mastered hunting everything. That accounts for penguins to manta rays to jellyfish and eels. Moreover, while some groups have only small numbers of orcas in them, their efficiency and communal living mean that orcas in a pod rarely go without. Keep reading for more facts about orcas, and why they are deadly sea creatures.
12. They Can Hunt Seals Both On Ice Floes and Land
We’ve talked about the orca’s speed a few times in this article. But that speed is fundamental to two of the orca’s hunting methods: wave washing and intentional grounding. Wave washing is when a pod of orcas will gather together and rush an ice floe, using their speed to create a swell of water that sweeps seals or sea lions off the ice and into the water. Then they’ll use other hunting methods to isolate and attack the prey once it’s vulnerable.
In an action once thought to be isolated to the whales off the coast of South America, but now being seen in Bigg’s killer whales in the Salish sea, orcas are intentionally beaching themselves in order to snatch seals directly off the land. This practice is dangerous to the killer whale, but successful; mother orcas have even been seen purposefully beaching their calves and then pulling them back into the water to teach this hunting method!
To us, the orca’s black and white coloration seems bold and immediately recognizable. However, their coloration makes them hard to see from below, making prey less likely to spot them. The unique blocking of their colors also makes the killer whale seem smaller to other marine wildlife, and therefore not as much of a danger. Different groups of killer whales have evolved to have different patterns, with some having murkier white sections, and there’s some speculation that killer whales use these patterns to distinguish members of their pods and family groups from other orcas.
Some specific ecotypes of orcas have even specialized in stealth killing, taking advantage of their near-silent swimming, their speed, and their coloration to ambush larger prey! This behavior can most often be seen in offshore orcas, specifically the North Atlantic Type 2 orcas, who almost exclusively hunt other dolphins and whales (like the Minke whale).
Orcas have incredible eyesight both in and out of the water, making them uniquely suited to hunt both fully aquatic and aquatic-adjacent sea life. There is some speculation that this eyesight, combined with their complex echolocation, is what allows orcas to be so specific in the prey they eat. This also contrasts many other species of marine mammals, including some of the larger whales, which may be another way that killer whales have advantage over the creatures they hunt.
Going back to our Salish orcas, this ability to distinguish their specific preferred food source may start becoming a hindrance. They prefer Chinook salmon and have been seen refusing both sockeye and pink salmon, which are abundant in their area. They do this despite Chinook salmon becoming increasingly scarce. However, their excellent eyesight is likely part of what enables pods to coordinate large group attacks!
We spoke about killer whales having effective ocean camouflage, but some pods of orcas go even further than relying on their coloration. Orcas have been observed hiding in the dark of the ocean, completely silent, relying on their excellent hearing to passively track prey before going in for the kill. This behavior was noted in the far northern reaches, which sometimes only have a few hours of darkness. Therefore, it must be incredibly effective and efficient to keep the killer whales sustained.
This method is most often seen in the mammal-eating orca groups, such as transient and offshore groups, and is distinct from the pods which eat mostly fish. The fish-eating pods are exceptionally vocal, “talking” to each other often, while the mammal-eating groups often only vocalize after they’ve secured their kill. One scientist speculates that their burst of communication after a kill is largely because of the need for speed and precision in dismantling their prey! And while some scientists thought that the silent killer whales hunted by sight alone, the fact that they hunted in the dark shows that they can also rely on their excellent hearing to track and corner prey.
You wouldn’t think of a moose as being prey for an orca. After all, moose live primarily on land, while orcas live in the ocean. Both orcas and moose are the largest members of their relative species, and both have few – if any – natural predators. The current most dangerous creature in the lives of these species is man; though moose are herbivores, they’re considered an apex species through sheer size alone.
But there is a strange relationship between orcas and moose. In the summer, moose prefer aquatic vegetation, and will even dive to get it, which makes them vulnerable to killer whales. While killer whales don’t often hunt moose, there is anecdotal evidence – such as moose corpses washing up with distinctive killer whale bite marks – that shows that orca can and will eat moose. This makes sense, because orcas can be opportunistic predators, often willing to eat anything and everything they can sink their teeth into.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating details about orcas, especially those that hunt sharks and aquatic mammals, is that they have the ability to be choosy in what they eat. Despite needing hundreds of pounds of food a day to survive, killer whales have been observed eating only the fatty, nutrient-rich livers of sharks and leaving the rest of the shark behind. They even have a specific method to extract the liver! They’ll make a hole near the liver and simply squeeze it out of the shark, like we would squeeze toothpaste from a tube.
One scientist even observed a pod of killer whales attacking a blue whale, the largest animal known to have existed! Approximately 12 orcas repeatedly bashed into the blue whale, biting at it, and finally wore it down enough that they were able to force it underwater and drown it. Then, instead of feeding indiscriminately, they went for the tongue first! Sometimes, the tongue is the only part of the baby they eat, despite how much food they need to survive.
Although orcas aren’t the largest creatures in the ocean, they’re some of the deadliest. But still, you’d think that something would hunt them, right? Sharks, for example, are powerful predators known for being perfectly designed to kill and eat prey. Polar bears, though ostensibly a land animal, spend much of their lives in the sea. They’re often spotted hunting belugas, narwhals, and bowhead whales, and can be found hundreds of miles from land. Other toothed whales also exist, but most have evolved to hunt fish and squid, not mammals. Still, their sheer size should render them able to fend off a killer whale attack… right?
Wrong. Not even the great white shark will mess with a pod of orcas. Though many people see the great white as the apex predator of the ocean, these strong hunters will flee in the face of killer whales, sometimes never to return. Blue and gray whales, some of the largest marine life to ever exist, demonstrate timidity and even fear in the face of orcas; despite having large bodies and heavy tails that they often use to stun or kill other potential predators, they’re almost hesitant to attack an orca even if it’s actively attacking them! It’s largely suspected that the killer whale’s overall intelligence, skilled hunting methods, and pack behavior is what has secured them their rightful spot at the top of the ocean’s food chain.
While we’ve talked about how orcas have spread across the world, becoming distinctive in their preferred prey, it’s also true that some regional groups are known as generalist eaters. Rather than having a specific species or type of prey, these groups will eat anything they can get. Worldwide, marine biologists saw them eating 140 different kinds of animals, including over 50 different types of marine mammals!
Orcas in the Antarctic, specifically, have been seen hunting and eating penguins. The birds they chase are smaller, and orcas seem specifically interested in the breast meat of penguins. They often meticulously picking off feathers and skin – sometimes with the help of other orcas. This behavior is highly unusual to scientists. The killer whale may only get a pound or two of meat – if that – from each penguin. When they need to eat hundreds of pounds of food a day, being so picky about the penguin makes little sense for survival.
Orcas, like many other ocean-dwelling mammals, are manual breathers. Unlike humans, who have a subconscious reflex that keeps us breathing even in deep sleep, killer whales must choose when they breathe. That means that they can’t go completely unconscious like us or they would sink and die!
Instead, orcas practice something called “unihemispheric sleep,” where one half of the brain shuts down and the other stays alert. This lets the killer whales keep an eye out for danger and continue to breathe while still getting the rest they need. They switch which side of the brain is “turned off” to ensure that they’re getting enough rest! And while they’re not fully conscious, they’re still capable of travel; orcas that are sleeping will swim slowly and steadily, close to the surface of the water, so that they can easily breach whenever necessary.
We know, we know – but baby animals are so cute! Unfortunately, baby and adolescent animals are often the weakest and most vulnerable of a species, and so killer whales have become experts at eating the young of a variety of different species. This method of hunting is most often seen with seals and sea lions, but transient and offshore orcas have also been known to hunt baby gray and blue whales.
Their method of hunting involves attacking small pods or single family groups. They work together to separate a baby from the mother. Gray whales are particularly vulnerable to this type of attack. Why? Because they most often travel alone or in groups of no more than three, though marine biologists see some bigger pods. Once the orcas have succeeded in getting a whale calf separated from its mother, they will either drown it or start devouring it. However, some scientists speculate that killer whales will hunt baby blue whales for the sheer enjoyment of it. Why? Because sometimes spending hours working to kill the calf only to eat the tongue and leave the rest.
Because orcas only give birth once every 3-10 years, after a 17-month gestation, they’re incredibly protective of their young. Orca mothers will nurse juveniles for up to two years, and adolescent female orcas will often help care for the younger killer whales in the pod. Because pods are matrilineal, and hunting methods are passed from mother to child, it’s vital that adolescent orcas are given the opportunity to grow up. Mothers have even been seen holding single salmon in their mouths, allowing their calves to chew at the fish, and thus learn the preferred prey of their particular regional group.
Killer whales also ensure that calves have plenty of food. In the case of hunting larger prey, such as blue whales, orcas will dive down to the corpse as it sinks to tear off chunks to bring to the surface. Young orcas can’t dive as deep or for as long as mature killer whales. Plus, they need proportionally more food than mature whales (10% of their body weight as opposed to 2-3% for an adult killer whale). Thus, the pod makes sure the young get their fill. Sure, some juvenile killer whales will separate from their mother’s pod and move to another group. However, many choose to stay within the pod for their entire lives.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating – and most alarming – facts about killer whales is that they have their own distinct cultures. Much like humans, individual regional groups (and even pods within the regions) have their own dialects, accents, and preferences! A study of four “clans” of resident killer whales off the coast of British Columbia and Washington showed that despite overlapping ranges and close proximity, each clan had a totally unique “language.”
Other differences include some whales visiting rubbing beaches. They purposefully scratch themselves on pebbly rocks in the shallows, while other whales that are nearby don’t exhibit the same behavior. Salish Sea whales are known to be extremely playful and even have greeting ceremonies!