Marine Creature: Orca or Killer Whale (Orcinus Orca)

Kindly compiled by Planet Whale

General Description

Orca are one of the most iconic species of cetacean. Despite the name they (Killer Whale) are actually the largest species of dolphin. The Orca generally travels in family pods of between two and 15 animals. Lone individuals are rarely sighted but pods sometimes join together to form single units of over 100 animals. Orca are often very active at the surface, where they are frequently observed breaching, spyhopping, lobtailing and flipper slapping. They also engage in other surface activities including beach rubbing, logging and dorsal fin slapping. Despite their inquisitive nature, Orca rarely bow ride or wake ride passing vessels.



© Dylan Walker at Planet Whale

© Dylan Walker at Planet Whale

The Orca is the most widespread marine mammal in the world, occurring in all oceans from the tropics to the edge of the pack ice in both the northern and southern hemispheres. This species generally becomes more abundant at higher latitudes, but its distribution is always patchy and may change with shifting food abundance. In the North American Pacific, there are several regions where Orcas are present throughout the year, with recognisable pods forming part of ongoing long-term research programs. In other regions, Orcas may pass through on their way from one hunting ground to another, or appear seasonally to hunt a specific prey species.

Orca2Interesting Facts

Despite their fearful name and appetite for just about everything on the a la carte seafood menu, a deliberate attack by a Killer Whale on a human being has yet to be recorded in the wild.

  • Lifespan: Up to 90 years
  • Size: Max 9.8m
  • Food: These capable predators tend to be specialist hunters – for example in some areas they eat only salmon and some groups specialise in seals. There is enormous variation in their diet worldwide, often very distinctive between ‘transient’ and ‘resident’ populations.
© Sarah Jackson at Planet Whale

© Sarah Jackson at Planet Whale

Feeding & Hunting

An extremely capable marine hunter, the killer whale is capable of hunting fish, seabirds, marine mammals and even Great White Sharks. Known as the ‘wolves of the sea’, Killer Whales hunt in highly co-ordinated family groups and in this way are able to subdue prey species larger than themselves, even including the largest baleen whales. They have been known to use highly intelligent methods, for example, Killer Whales have associated with tuna fisheries in the Gibraltar Strait for at least 2000 years. They either exhaust the tuna, chasing them for around 30 minutes or, since the beginning of the beginning of the nineties they have interacted with the long-line fishery.

© Dylan Walker at Planet Whale

© Dylan Walker at Planet Whale


Unfortunately Orcas are still often kept in captivity – in little more than large swimming pools, and often on their own – which is a depressing and cruel existence for animals that have strong social bonds with fellow pod members and travel enormous distances in the wild. Pollution is also a big threat as these animals are top of the food chain so their bodies are often heavily contaminated by pollutants we allow into the oceans.

Conservation Status & International Protection

IUCN “data deficient”. It is likely over the next few years some of the ‘groups’ of orcas will be defined as different species – in this case some of these new species will be designated as higher risk as the combination of potential declines driven by depletion of prey resources and the effects of pollutants leads to an expected 30% global reduction in numbers over three generations.

© Sarah Jackson at Planet Whale

© Sarah Jackson at Planet Whale

How can people help?

Avoid visiting any aquariums that keep Orcas in captivity.


Best places in the world to see these creatures:

Norwegian fjords, British Columbia, and many more at www.planetwhale.com plus ethical reviews and rating system for whale watching trips to see Orcas

Case Study – Orca Project Sri Lanka

© Andrew Webb

Orcas of Sri Lanka:  Very little is known about the orcas that are sighted off Sri Lanka’s shores each year, with only a handful of annual encounters, many questions surround this secretive population. But as more people take to the water to enjoy Sri Lanka’s rich whale-watch offerings, the opportunity to encounter and photograph these enigmatic visitors also presents an opportunity to study them; and now a pioneering citizen-science initiative aims to work with the public to begin to unravel some the mysteries surrounding this iconic whale.

Orca Project Sri Lanka (OPSL) is the first citizen-science project centred on studying orcas seen off Sri Lanka.   In addition to a sightings log, orca images submitted by the public are used as part of an on-going photo ID study, to identify and ‘track’ orca individuals.  The projects are the joint initiative of, and coordinated by, British naturalist Georgina Gemmell, head of eco-tourism for John Keells Chitral Jayatilake, and wildlife tourism champion Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne.

Already, Orca Project Sri Lanka has revealed some interesting discoveries about these enigmatic visitors. The ID catalogue currently holds 11 identified individuals, and has provided the first confirmation that some orca travel all around the island, being sighted in Kalpitya (in the Northwest), Mirissa (in the South) and Trincomalee (in the Northeast). It appears that some individuals do indeed return to the island each year, with sightings being highest between November to Januray and March to April. The peak of the sightings tend to coincide with the Blue and Sperm whale season for the south and north, suggesting that the orcas may be in the area to predate on these species as well as the plentiful dolphins.

It is thought that the orcas seen off Sri Lanka may be a mammal-eating ecotype, with documented accounts of predation and attempted predation towards Blue and Sperm whales.

It is hoped that with the support of the public, this exciting project will continue to grow and reveal more about this little-studied orca population, laying a foundation for further studies in the future and contributing to our overall knowledge of these iconic, complex and fascinating whales.

Andrew Webb

© Andrew Webb


© Michaela Hanusova

© Michaela Hanusova

Organisation Profile:  Planet Whale

Description/Background of work

Orca7At the heart of Planet Whale is a belief that an encounter with a wild whale or dolphin reconnects us with the natural world in an amazing and powerful way. For one humbling moment we can be moved to tears or celebrating wildly as we stare through the thin veil of water that separates us from these magnificent animals.

Planet Whale understands that we all need such encounters to reawaken our sense of responsibility to the natural world; energising ourselves to act for the greater good. That is our first step – only when we have been inspired will we feel compelled to act. For this reason we promote responsible whale watching and have the largest online searchable database of whale and dolphin watch operators in the world – the public can review trips they’ve been on with regard to their sustainability, educational value and impact on the marine environment, amongst other things.

It is this global community that will change the way we view whales and dolphins forever. By harnessing the passion and ideas of individuals, we will achieve more to protect and defend our oceans than ever before.

Together we will: 

  • Give the people control so they can use it to help whales and dolphins.
  • Inspire change through a new global partnership.
  • Make whale watching more sustainable – and successful – than ever before!
  • Reach out to the world with colossal festivals for whales and dolphins.
  • Create innovative campaigns that harness the power of the web’s global community.

Websites:  www.planetwhale.com / www.whale-fest.com

Volunteer/Paid Work Opportunities

We are always looking for passionate and hard-working volunteers to help achieve our Planet Whale mission. In particular we welcome applications for the upcoming Whalefest. You don’t need to be a whale expert but a lot of enthusiasm for marine conservation and a fun attitude are essential. We’re based in Brighton and Hove (UK) but our volunteer network stretches across the globe, so feel free to get in touch wherever you are! Contact us at info@planetwhale.com.


Return to Toothed Whales or learn more about the Pilot Whale