Killer Whales, also known as Orca, have captured the attention of humans for centuries. Over this time our natural curiosity has made us wonder in depth and discover new information about these apex predators. Their distinct bi-colouring, extreme peak physical condition and complete ocean domination along with their intelligence and curiosity has meant humans have become infatuated. There is plenty to unpack but below we will delve into the FIVE most important things you need to know about Killer Whales. But firstly, a brief history lesson.

A quick historical review:

If you look deep enough there are endless old fables where humans and killer whales worked together to hunt. Written in books or passed down through generations there was always something special about this partnership. The killer whale’s big white eye patch resembled the classic human interpretation of ‘cute’ and ‘cartoon’ along with their intelligence and trainability. These apex predators more recently fell prey to human curiosity and exploitation and were placed in tanks onshore. Humans could study, observe, test and train them, while gaining insight into the species. The full extent of an orca’s intelligence was tested!

On the same timeline as captive killer whale studies there were scientists observing wild populations. They could find information such as grief and age limits as well as diet and population without disturbing the animal. They could watch from a distance and still understand social dynamics and physiological elements, all the while still indulging in human “entertainment”. 

This article will not delve any deeper into captive vs wild orca but it will shed light on the most important things you need to know about these incredible animals. 

5 important orca facts: 

  • How smart are orcas?

Being mammals like us, we share many similar functions such as breathing air, nursing, teaching, mating and also advanced brain functions such as emotions. When you look into a Killer Whale’s eye, it is as if there is awareness. You are realising that the orca is realising you! They also have languages, accents and complex social structures, which all leans towards being intelligent. 

We can see that an orca’s brain is physically larger than ours and comes in second largest for body-brain size ratio. Specifically, their brains can weigh a whopping 6.5 kilograms! 

We are pretty smart right? Imagine the brain functions possible for an animal that has more “grey areas” and active folds than us!! This extra energy passing through their brain means more functionality, they have what we have, plus some. Killer Whales also have a Paralimbic Area (absent in humans) which is observed to link with emotions and problem solving! 

When observing killer whales in the wild, we can see how intelligent they really are. They have an exceptional ability to hunt strategically and methodically along with cooperation and the communication it takes for a pod (family) to work together. Every single time they outsmart their prey. Sometimes luck is on the prey’s side and they can get away but if there are multiple pods working together, most marine animals do not stand a chance! 

They have exceptional hearing too. So good that they actually have TWO auditory pathways while we are still existing with only one. This suggests they have a heightened understanding of linguistics and are able to process more complex sounds. Not only can they hear like we can, they have the added bonus of echolocation. This is where they emit a sound, sending it around the ocean, bouncing off other animals and it is received back through their ear holes. When this happens they create a 3D image of their surroundings just from sound alone. When you are in the darkness and surrounded by water while trying to hunt food, you could imagine it is important to be hyper aware of your surroundings!

  1. Birth:

The life cycle of a Killer Whale is long and slow. They do not breed often but once a calf is born there is a lot of energy put into it. A 15 to 18 month gestation will produce a 2m long calf which can weigh around 150kgs. Born without teeth or blubber the calf will be well protected by its family pod. 

It is interesting to note that they are born ORANGE and black! Well not actually orange but their blood vessels are very close to the surface of their skin since they lack the thick blubber layer and this gives off the appearance of orange skin! It also means that if the calf is born in cold water or does not receive enough nutrients it will die. The mortality rate is extremely high for the first year of orca life with two thirds of calves not making it to their first birthday.  

An orca birth is very special and with well known populations it can create a lot of excitement when a neonate is born. Creating even more attention is when the calf begins to age and get bigger giving us the impression a particular population is healthy! 

  • Death 

The matriarch of a pod is believed to be the one in charge. She along with her sons, daughters and grandchildren who are within her pod will speak with the same accent, hunt the same food and play together. When an orca dies, its family will go through a grieving process. They can be observed not eating, swimming lacklusterly and not socialising. If an orca calf lives through the dangerous first year of life, it can live a full century. The oldest record is in a wild population, “Granny” was believed to be over 105 years old! 

Wild populations tend to have orca go “missing”. This means from one season to the next a particular whale does not return with the rest of the pod. Very rarely orca wash up deceased on shore other times there is no trace of their remains. Males will only live half as long as females, and particular diets can also reduce longevity! 

  • Menopause

Females living distinctly longer than males…? What gives?! A female orca can easily live into her 70’s while males are said to kick the bucket around 50 years old or less. Females play a vital role in the pod, not only giving birth, nursing and rearing a calf but also to instruct and pass down traditions and information. Yes, orcas have cultures! Once a female has passed her prime mating years she will actually go through menopause. It isn’t just human women who have to endure this! In these prime years, she can focus on education and ruling her pod.

  • Where to see them?

As mentioned above, it is not suitable nor morally ethical to visit a killer whale in captivity. These big brained apex predators need their families and their cultures, just like us! Wild orca populations can be viewed all around the world. The top locations to go orca watching include, Western Australia, and Antarctica in the southern hemisphere and then Argentina, Iceland, Alaska, Norway, Washington, California and Canada in the north! 

Now that you know more about them, you should go visit them in the wild! 

Laura Daniel