How much do you know about killer whales, otherwise known as orcas, apart from Shamu and “Free WIlly”? Why is there more outrage about them being kept in captivity than other zoo animals? Here are 5 fun things you never knew about killer whales.
#1 – They aren’t whales
Orcas are actually the largest species of dolphin. Some speculate that the name “killer whale” is a mistranslation of the name given by Basque whalers – asesina-ballenas – which means whale killer. The whalers would have observed pods of orcas hunting baleen whales.
#2 – There may be several species
There are 7 different ecotypes that represent as many as 3-5 different species, but further DNA research is needed to classify the different species. As many as 3 different ecotypes may have overlapping habitat ranges but they have different diets and never interbreed.
#3 – The most well-studied orcas live off the coast of Washington and British Columbia
They fall into 3 types: resident, transient, and offshore. Resident killer whales eat almost exclusively fish – primarily salmon – and squid. Transients eat mostly marine mammals such as seals, sea lions, and whale calves, which they’ll separate from their mother and drown. Offshore orcas travel far from shore and eat mostly schooling fish, though the scars and nicks on their dorsal fins suggest they may also eat mammals and sharks.
#4 – They’re often called the wolves of the sea
The way they work together as a group to bring down prey that may be larger than themselves is reminiscent of a wolf pack. They communicate with each other in clicks, whistles, and pulsed calls that vary by group in different dialects. They also show extreme intelligence in the methods they use to hunt prey and even overcome obstacles put up by humans to dissuade orcas from stealing their catch.
#5 – They may live up to 80 years in the wild
A couple of individuals are thought to have lived 90 years or more, but most females don’t live longer than 70-80 years and most males don’t live longer than 50-60 years in the wild. In the wild, females who survive infancy live an average of 46 years and males an average of 31 years. Most captive whales only live into their 20s. 60-90% of captive males suffer from dorsal fin collapse. There are no accounts of wild orcas killing humans, but captive orcas have been involved in dozens of attacks on people, some of which have been fatal. This is thought to be a result of the stress of living in captivity.