Killer whales are some of the most beloved and revered animals that call the ocean home. Much like their dolphin relatives, orcas are incredibly intelligent and seem to share many familial and social bonds like humans. They can hunt in packs, traveling in formations and utilizing surprisingly knowledgeable techniques to kill prey. Thanks to movies like Free Willy, killer whales enjoy a positive reputation that even led to scandals being exposed at SeaWorld out of concern for their safety.
While the name may seem harsh, it's actually very appropriate as these aggressive animals are just behind some of the most efficient killers in the entire animal kingdom. In fact, even great white sharks are terrified of orcas, a lesson that would be wise for everyone to remember. Read on to learn some fascinating facts about the killer whale, an apex predator that knows no mercy.
With the word “killer” in the name, it’s safe to assume that the killer whale is a skilled marine hunter. Orcas hunt in pods, a family group which has been known to number as many as 40 individuals. Pods can be permanent or temporary, and depending on which they are, may hunt different prey and employ different hunting techniques.
When hunting seals, who rest on ice floats, orcas have been known to create massive waves to knock their prey off before attacking. For sharks, the whales crash down on the shark's head and flip them over, forcing sharks into something scientists call “tonic immobility.” Basically, it's a 15-minute state of paralysis, during which the orca suffocates and kills the shark. This displays an incredible knowledge of shark biology.
For schools of fish, instead of chasing down individuals, killer whales will create a net of air bubbles and belly flashes to herd them into a tight ball before feeding. They even attack whales much larger than themselves, killing gray, humpback, and even blue whales. Orcas force themselves on top of the much larger, less agile, whale and keep them from breaching, preventing the larger whale from breathing. Finally, when hunting sea lions and elephant seals, orcas will literally storm beaches, launching themselves onto the sand and snatching their prey before dragging them into the deadly depths of the ocean.
A female killer whale will reproduce every three to ten years with only one calf at a time. The gestation period is an astounding 17 months, and when born, a calf will be about 8.5 feet in length and weigh only 265 to 350 pounds. Calves nurse for 5 to 10 seconds at a time, several times an hour throughout the day. They are weaned off milk at around one years old, when they are strong enough to hunt and feed with the rest of the pod.
Orcas are incredibly protective of their young and other females in the pod will often assist a new mother in caring for her young.
Much like other pack animals and animals of high intelligence, orcas depend on a complex and diverse communication system. Much like their dolphin relatives, orcas use a series of clicks, whistles, and chirps to cut through the water and communicate with one another. Orcas are able to create these sounds with the use of a compact tissue in the nasal cavity and hear them with their nearly invisible, highly developed ears located behind their eyes.
Scientists continue to study the sounds that killer whales make, and while much is still unknown, they have discovered that all pods create completely different sets of sounds from other pods. When orcas are born, they are able to employ a very rudimentary repertoire of sounds, and learn their pod’s “dialect” over time. This use of language and its variance across pods from all over the world proves just how intelligent these marine mammals are.
In fact, the differences in prey preference, hunting practice, and communication has lead some scientists to believe that orcas are the only non-human mammal whose evolution is driven by culture, as opposed to natural selection.
While the world ‘whale’ is in the orca’s colloquial name, “Killer Whale,” the orca is in fact the world’s largest species in the dolphin family. Orcas are massive animals, weighing up to 6 tons and growing from 23 to 32 feet in length. This compares to the common bottlenose dolphin, which are between 10 to 14 feet long and weigh approximately 1,100 pounds. While a dolphin's size is relative to that of a large human, the orca's size is relative to that of a bus.
In addition to their big size, killer whales are also known for their large dorsal fin which can reach up to 6 feet.