The film Free Willy did much for popularizing Killer (Orca) Whales. Yet most of us have several questions regarding these mammals. Why are Killer Whales called “Killer Whales?” Do Killer Whales eat sharks? How long do Killer Whales live? Do Killer Whales eat humans? Are Orcas dangerous? What’s Killer Whales’ diet? How big are Killer Whales? Are Killer Whales “whales?” Why are Orcas commonly called “Killer Whales?”
In this section, we aim to provide you with answers to these and many other Killer Whale facts that answer questions such as: Where do Killer Whales live? Are there Killer Whale predators? Are Killer Whales endangered? We also go through the history regarding Killer Whale attacks – and myths.
Orcas, also known as Killer Whales, are members of the dolphin family. It is the largest of these. Dolphins are part of the whale family. Therefore, Orcas are whales. They are toothed whales belonging to the suborder Odontoceti (Oh-DON-tuh-SEH-tee), which also contains all oceanic dolphins and porpoises.
This is a bit complicated because all dolphins are whales and few people are aware of this. It is not the case that all whales are dolphins though. Killer Whales are more closely related to dolphins, of which it is the largest. In summary, Killer Whales are both dolphins and whales. They are the largest members of the dolphin family.
Killer Whales are found in every ocean of the world. They can be found in deep waters and coastal waters. They are often spotted off the West Coast of the United States and Canada. According to The Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, Orcas are “second only to humans as the most widely distributed mammal in the world.” Orcas tend to be found in the highest abundance in both Arctic and Antarctic waters. There is disagreement in the scientific community about the number of Orca species.
Yes. In fact, five different types of Orca have been documented living in the waters in and around Antarctica. The largest Orcas are Male Antarctic Type A Orcas which migrate to Antarctic waters during the Austral (southern) summer. This type feeds mainly on Minke Whales and Elephant Seals. Additionally, type B, C, and D Killer Whales can be found in and around Antarctica.
It depends on the type of Killer Whale. There are ten “types” of Killer Whales worldwide that have been documented. Five of these kinds live in the Northern Hemisphere and five types mainly inhabit the Southern Hemisphere.
For Antarctic species, Type A’s (Antarctic Type A Killer Whale) feed on Minke Whales and Elephant Seals.
Large Type B’s (Pack Ice Killer Whales) have been observed living around South Polar pack ice waters – mainly feeding on Weddell Seals, although they will attempt other seals too.
Small Type B’s (Gerlache Killer Whales) live around the Antarctic Peninsula – primarily the Gerlache Strait. It’s unknown what their “preferred” prey is, but they have been seen feeding on penguins.
Type C is known as the Ross Sea Killer Whale and it’s the smallest Orca known with adult males reaching about 20 feet (6 meters) in length. These Killer Whales feed mainly on fish.
Type D’s (Subantarctic Killer Whales) are easily recognizable due to their tiny white eye patches. They are found circumglobally in southern waters just north of sixty degrees south latitude. It’s not known what their preferred diet consists of, but there are reports of it stealing fish from longlines.
There are currently as many as ten types of Orca. Five of these ten subspecies are found in Antarctic and sub-Antarctic waters. Scientists disagree about these and there is mounting evidence that some might be distinct species.
There are currently ten types of Orca that have been at least partially documented. Different types tend to rely on specific sources of food. Different food sources require different strategies for hunting.
Some populations have been targeting Great White Sharks near South African waters. The carcasses wash up ashore with their livers gone – having been cut open in a very precise way by Killer Whales. It’s believed that they must eat fast because the carcass will sink so they are prioritizing the best parts of the animal that provide the most energy in the least amount of time.
The sinking problem is the same with Gray Whale calves who are sometimes hunted by Orcas. Orcas work together as pack animals. They will pull the calf down into the depths drowning it. It isn’t easy because the cow (mother) will place herself between the attacking pack and her calf to protect the baby whale.
Orcas hunting Weddell Seals in Antarctica will swim in a coordinated way under a small iceberg that has a sunbathing seal lying atop it. The resulting wave will force the seal into the sea where Killer Whales rush past the seal disorienting it and making it difficult for the prey to escape back atop another iceberg. Eventually, if successful, they will bite it by the tail and drag it under until it has drowned. This method of hunting was chronicled in Antarctic waters on BBC’s Frozen Planet.
Some populations hunt Tuna. They seem to know that smaller tuna can only maintain top speed for so long before tiring. Killer Whales will chase them just long enough to force them to exhaustion before they move in to make the kill. Others hunt herring and they will work together to herd the herring into a smaller, denser ball (like dolphins do). Then they will slap herring with their tails so that they are stunned and easier to catch.
Killer Whales are apex predators so they do not have any naturally occurring predators. However, populations in the Pacific Northwest are reaching historic lows because they cannot find enough salmon due to overfishing by people. Several studied populations have declined significantly in the last couple of decades as well. The culprit is thought to be PCB, a man-made chemical that is no longer used but still wreaking havoc on the entire food chain.
The old name for Killer Whale was Whale Killer. Pods of Orcas have been seen attacking whales since early human seafaring days.
However, it depends on the population. Some groups feed mainly on fish, penguins, or seals. There are some types, such as Antarctic Type A Orcas, that feed primarily on Minke Whales and Elephant Seals. Some pods of Killer Whales also target whale calves – especially Gray Whales and Humpback Whales – in an attempt to pull the youngster down to the depths and drown them. Recently footage of an attack against an adult Blue Whale was caught by a drone in the waters of Monterey Bay in California.
What do Orcas eat in Antarctica?
It depends on the type of Antarctic Orca. Type A’s (Antarctic Type A Killer Whale) feed on Minke Whales and Elephant Seals. Large Type B’s (Pack Ice Killer Whales) have been observed living around South Polar pack ice waters – mainly feeding on Weddell Seals, although they will attempt other seals too. Small Type B’s (Gerlache Killer Whales) live around the Antarctic Peninsula – primarily the Gerlache Strait. It’s unknown what their “preferred” prey is, but they have been seen feeding on penguins. Type C is known as the Ross Sea Killer Whale and it’s the smallest Orca known with adult males reaching about 20 feet (6 meters) in length. These Killer Whales feed mainly on fish. Type D’s (Subantarctic Killer Whales) are easily recognizable due to their tiny white eye patches. They are found circumglobally in southern waters just north of sixty degrees south latitude. It’s not known what their preferred diet consists of, but there are reports of it stealing fish from longlines.
It is known that Beluga Whales and Dolphins can shut down one hemisphere of their brain for sleep at a time while the other hemisphere is still functioning. Since Orcas are quite similar, it’s thought that they employ a similar mechanism for “sleep.” It is also possible that the rest as other whales do. That is, they can either rest quietly while in a horizontal or vertical position, or they can sleep while swimming slowly next to another whale. Doing this places them into a state that is similar to napping.
Young whales can do everything – including resting and sleeping – while simply gliding next to their mother. Since they do not have much body fat yet, they could sink if their mother doesn’t keep moving next to them. The mother’s continuous movement creates its own current known as a slipstream, which keeps the calf from sinking. Mother whales usually will not stop swimming for the first few weeks of a newborn’s life.
It is believed that whale blowholes are controlled by the conscious part of the whale’s brain. This is perhaps one reason why whales do not fully sleep in the same sort of deep sleep that humans and many other land mammals utilize for recharging.
Since certain populations depend solely on prey much larger than humans, it is theoretically possible. There are several recorded incidents where wild Orcas either mistook humans for being prey or perhaps purposefully attempted to attack people. They are extremely rare incidents.
In captivity attacks by Orcas have been more frequent. There is no case where a person was ever eaten, but there are cases where people died either as the result of an accident or from an attempt to hurt or kill a person. One captive Orca named Tilikum was involved in three separate incidents that caused three deaths of people.
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