As the apex predator of the seas and the largest dolphin, the orca is known for its striking color, social intelligence, and brilliant hunting strategies. These magnificent marine mammals own the oceans with their smarts and strength. And some famous orcas have made their name in history. So, let’s dive in and look at ten killer facts about orcas.
10 Black and White Camouflage
Orcas are easily recognized by their beautiful black and white color, but things are different for their underwater prey. Ocean fish that travel long distances are dark on top and light on the bottom. This helps them avoid being seen from above and below by matching their bodies with the darkness of the deep and the light from the surface. The great white shark is a good example, and even military planes are built to follow this camouflage coloration.
However, the orca uses pure black and white for stealth as it hunts through the open ocean. Additionally, an orca’s unique color pattern divides its sleek yet massive 10-meter (32-foot) body to appear smaller in the murky blue, convincing prey to drop their guard until it’s too late.
9 Killer Whale Cultures
Orcas have a cosmopolitan distribution, meaning their range consists of nearly every habitat possible, from the frigid poles to the warm tropics. Different places have different types of killer whales, and the three main ones are resident, transient, and offshore. Resident killer whales are skilled fish hunters of the northeast Pacific. Transients are powerful mammal-eating orcas that travel along coasts in small groups, and offshore orcas eat whatever they can in huge come-and-go pods. Their genetic differences allow them to be labeled anywhere from races of orca to different species entirely, with some groups not having interbred in 700,000 years!
Within these groups are the orca pods of the world, each unique with its very own culture and ranging up to over a hundred members. Orcas pass on local dialects of communication and traditional hunting lessons to their younger generations and are deeply social animals with the second-largest brain in the world, playing with and enjoying each other’s company. Pods rarely meet, but when they do, they happily greet each other as two friendly families would.
8 Whale Killers
Orcas were thought to have mainly hunted the great whales before industrial whaling. They were first nicknamed whale killers, using their power, intelligence, and pack hunting to dominate the seas and kill animals completely unapproachable to any other marine predator. The truth is that different orca pods eat a variety of animals depending on their location and culture, but many do specialize in whale hunting. These orcas are very successful at preying upon the calves of migrating mothers by surrounding and tiring out the pair until the calf is separated and so exhausted it drowns.
Although they prefer easy kills on baby whales, orcas are also strong enough to take down an adult in the right conditions. In a well-documented encounter, a helplessof nine was repeatedly injured by teams of four to five killer whales for four hours until one finally died. Though the sperm whales did their best to defend each other, they lacked the numbers and teeth of the killers.
7 Shark Slayers
Although sharks are regarded as fearsome rulers of the deep, they swim for their lives when killer whales arrive. Even the largest, most aggressive sharks have a special weakness that orcas abuse to their advantage. When upside down, a shark becomes immobilized for up to 15 minutes in what’s called tonic immobility—a reflex scientists use to disable and tag sharks. Orcas hunt at high speeds and have the skill and strength to ram a great white shark upside down with a single calculated blow, rendering it defenseless and easily eaten. Great whites are so badly beaten that they immediately make themselves scarce wherever they sense orcas.
Orcas also dive deeper than their comfort zone to rip open the rare, a 7-meter (23-foot) deep-sea terror. The shark doesn’t put up a fight, though, only lulling at a speed of 1.1-3.5 kph (0.8-2.2 mph), nothing compared to the 50 kph (30 mph) orca. The sleeper shark hoards food in its stomach due to its slow metabolism as an opportunistic scavenger, which is freely available for the orca when torn open. However, killer whales must avoid the lethally poisonous flesh of the sleeper and endure chewing past its rough skin.
6 Wave Washers
Blubbery seals are a favorite food for transient orcas, one in which they’ve made several genius strategies to eat. Orcas intentionally beach themselves to catch shoreline seals before clumsily wobbling their large bodies back into the waves. Even when resting on ice floes, seals still aren’t safe. Antarctic orcas have developed a technique called the “wave wash,” where they coordinate their movements to forcefully push and disturb the water with their size, making large waves that wash the seal off the ice and into their jaws.
Orcas are known for ramming and slamming their prey, and one has been observed24 meters (80 feet) into the air with its tail. Experts explain that tail slapping is a good tactic for orcas to injure and stun their prey, preventing the seal from using its sharp claws and biting. This also loosens the seal’s skin, which orcas don’t eat, for easier tearing. Some marine scientists also think orcas just have fun playing with their food!
5 Old Tom
In the early 1900s, during the age of whalers, Old Tom was a male killer whale who hunted along the coasts of Australia, driving pods of baleen whales into whaling ships. He and his pod only ate the deliciously soft lips and tongues of the freshly killed whales, leaving the blubber and bones for the crew to collect. Each winter, his pod traveled up from the Antarctic for the special treats. For four decades, the European whalers respected the Law of the Tongue, which originated with native Australian whalers thousands of years ago. Old Tom was the leader of his pod, which he coordinated to trap the whales at bay and signal the whalers to come to kill by thrashing and breaching the water.
The whalers and killer whales enjoyed a mutual relationship and helped each other outside of it, too: whaling crews freed orcas from fishing nets, and orcas scattered away sharks from small rowboats. Eventually, though, greed overtook man. Fearing the small whale Old Tom rushed toward them was the last of the season, the whalers pulled the body away from Tom in a tug-of-war, tearing out some of his teeth, which later caused his death through infection and starvation.
4 Moby Doll
Originally, orcas were thought of as vicious, bloodthirsty monsters with cannibalistic cruelty, a reasonable claim for sailors to make when they saw them swarming and mauling whale prey in a brutal bloodbath. But one killer whale would show humanity there was more to them than killing. Moby Doll was caught in 1964 by a harpooning crew that set out to kill an orca and use its body as a model for replicas. He was shot and hooked by the harpoon until he bled unconscious, but two of his pod stayed at his side to lift him up and make sure he didn’t drown. Touched, the crew realized they weren’t the heartless killers they’d imagined and decided not to kill the injured orca, instead carefully bringing the whale to a drydock until the Vancouver Aquarium built a better home.
He was named Moby Doll, reflecting his docile, friendly nature compared to the murderous legend of Moby Dick, and he completely changed public perception of killer whales. He only lived for a few more months and was displayed to the public for only one day. Still, he was the pivotal influence in inspiring people to protect and appreciate orcas, from whale watching, scientific studies, and censuses to the height of the orca entertainment industry and its later fall.
It is a tragedy for a killer whale to be cruelly cut off from its multigenerational family and trapped inside small, artificial enclosures—mockeries compared to the freedom of the ocean. Tilikum was a stressed, captured orca male famous for rebelling against the captive orca industry by killing people. In 1991, at Sealand of the Pacific in Vancouver, BC, Tilikum and his two tankmates drowned a young trainer who fell into their pool, ruining Sealand’s reputation and forcing it to close down. Seven years later, he brutally killed a man who decided to sneak in and take a swim in his nighttime pool, leaving gruesome wounds all over him. However, SeaWorld—Tilikum’s new home—claimed they didn’t have footage on their camera monitors of what happened.
Lastly, in 2010, Tilikum savagely mauled and drowned expert 40-year-old trainer Dawn Brancheau to death. His final kill left SeaWorld’s audience and earnings dwindling, but despite killing three people, Tilikum was still kept captive until his death by several infections. The documentary Blackfish and the book Death and SeaWorld popularized Tilikum’s story and the inhumanity of keeping captive orcas. To this day, humane activists keep his fight for freedom alive.
Killer whales live in matriarchal societies of up to four generations. Grandmothers use their knowledge and leadership to keep their pods well-fed and safe, and the lives of their grandchildren depend on them when food becomes scarce. Granny was the oldest known killer whale, a resident matriarch of the North Pacific that lived over a hundred years. She guided her family through harsh times as salmon populations fell over the decades from overfishing.
Long-term scientific studies of orcas have determined that orca calves with grandmothers are more likely to survive, and the risk of death for a calf drastically rises in the two years following the death of its grandmother. Caring grandmas like Granny are a huge help in feeding their pods to survive against the odds. Interestingly, humans, killer whales, and pilot whales are the only mammals that experience menopause, with orca females starting around 40 and living to 90 or above. On the other hand, males tend to only live about 50 years.
1 Humpbacks vs. Orcas
Armed with barnacle-encrusted thick skin, 5-meter-long (16-foot) flippers, and a gigantic fluked tail, adult humpback whales are nearly impervious to orcas. They can easily defend themselves and almost always succeed in protecting their calves. Humpbacks start over half of their confrontations with orcas, actively seeking to fight them and, in over 80% of these incidents, intervene in orca hunts. Humpback whales have fought off orcas looking to wave wash, thunderously bellowing at them to leave. In one case, a humpback whale floated on its back and allowed a seal surrounded by orcas to rest in safety on its underside before bringing the fortunate rescuee to stable ice.
But why would these baleen saviors help other marine mammals? It’s possible that since killer whales are the only predator powerful enough to kill humpback calves, the humpbacks antagonize orcas and sympathize with their prey whenever they can. With an opponent this massive and intelligent, even the orca has met its match.