Although their name would suggest otherwise, killer whales - also known as orcas - are generally thought to be gentle giants of the sea. Free Willy and other whale-centric films have managed to brand orcas as some of the friendliest marine mammals - and films like the controversial Blackfish shed light on how they are mistreated in captivity - but in reality, orcas can be brutal and ferocious, hunting everything from small fish to seals and dolphins. Since orcas are extremely intelligent, they often use their developed communication skills and carnivorous instincts to dominate the ocean as apex predators. A group of aggressive orcas have the collective power to take down almost any threat, including humans.
Many may simply attribute orcas' bloodthirsty tendencies to their natural instincts rather than any inherent sadistic preferences. The orca facts listed below, however, may give you a fresh understanding of where orcas get their unsavory nickname. While plenty of people fear sharks, perhaps these seemingly friendly marine mammals are the true, unrecognized threat of the sea.
They Can Hunt And Eat The Largest Creatures On Earth
Given their aggression and facility with hunting all manner of dangerous or wily aquatic creatures, scientists have long wondered, "Can Orcas kill and eat full-grown blue whales?" It was an open and unsettled debate for years until a team of researchers published a paper in the academic journal Marine Mammal Science revealing that not only can killer whales succesfully hunt blue whales, but these researchers actually witnessed orca pods doing exactly that in three separate instances.
These scientists studying whales off the coast of Southwestern Australia first observed a pod of over a dozen orcas attacking and killing a blue whale over the course of about an hour in 2019, with one orca even consuming the blue whale's tongue. While humans have observed killer whales doing the same to blue whale calves in the past, this was the first time an adult blue whale was seen becoming prey to killer whales. This pygmy blue whale measured about 70 feet long; its carcass attracted roughly 50 additional orcas after the hunt.
Orcas hunting a blue whale represents "the biggest predation event on Earth, maybe the biggest one since dinosaurs were here,” according to marine ecologist Robert Pittman.
Even Great White Sharks Can Be Victims
In May of 2017, four carcasses of great white sharks washed up on the beaches of South Africa. It wasn't long before orcas became the primary suspects in these bizarre incidents. Each of the sharks sustained brutal damage to their livers and testicles – the former of these, which was removed from all four sharks, is known to possess essential nutrients for orcas, providing a possible reason for the meticulous attack.
They Often Target Whale Calves
While most large whales tend to live off of small fish like krill, orcas sometimes hunt the offspring of their close relatives, bowhead whales. They usually do so by assailing a calf and its mother as a group, aiming to separate the mother and child. They will then attack the calf by either ramming it, or holding it underwater.
While the bowhead mother is sometimes successful in saving her baby, this is sadly not always the case.
One Whale Was Responsible For Three Human Casualties
In 2013, the documentary Blackfish premiered and permanently altered the public's perception of captive orcas. For decades, the orcas of SeaWorld were the primary draw for the zoo/amusement park hybrid. Unfortunately, the prison-like nature of the orcas' captivity led to a total breakdown for one of their star orcas, Tilikum.
Tilikum was the subject of the documentary and made national news after killing one of his trainers. Tilikum was responsible for three fatalities in his lifetime. The first was an employee at a now-defunct marine park known as Sealand, a place where Tilikum was kept in appalling conditions. He was eventually sold to SeaWorld to play the role of Shamu, and it was there that he claimed his next two victims. One was Dawn Brancheau, a star orca trainer at the park. Captivity-induced stress is believed to be the cause of Tilikum's aggressive behavior, and SeaWorld has since put an end to their orca breeding program.