Killer Whale Facts

The killer whale (orcinus orca) is part of the (odontoceti) toothed whale suborder.

While the killer whale carries the name whale it is actually considered a dolphin.

In fact it is the largest of the dolphin species and has even been known on rare occasion to attack whales and other marine mammals.

Killer whales are one of the most well-recognized sea mammals and are easily spotted by their strong black and white coloring.

These dolphins are extremely intelligent, well-organized and follow highly complex social structures within their pods, which often consists of large groups of family members.

In fact the social structure of killer whales is considered one of the most stable social structures of any animal species.

Having no known predators the killer whale is known as an apex or alpha predator, which means it is able to hunt freely without fear of being attacked by another marine animal.

Physical Characteristics

Killer whales have black backs, white chests and sides and white circles above and behind their eyes.

Male killer whales usually grow to an average of 20 - 26 feet and weigh an average of 8,000 lbs. - 12,000 lbs. while female dolphins grow to an average of 16 - 23 feet and weighs between 3,000 lbs. – 6,000 lbs.

The largest recorded killer whale measured in at 32 feet and weighed over 10 tons.

Killer whales have a single blow-hole, a pair of pectoral flippers, flukes and a dorsal fin.


Killer whales will feast on small aquatic life forms such as fish and squid and larger marine mammals such as sea lions, seals, seabirds, penguins and even other whales.

Depending on the region the killer whale lives in their diets can change dramatically.

Food intake can also vary significantly, eating anywhere from 2% to 10% of their body weight in food on a daily basis.

Calves (new-born dolphins) will tend to eat a higher percentage of food than adult dolphins.

Some interesting animals and species found in the stomach of killer whales include:


Although they often prefer cold water killer whales can be found in all of the worlds major oceans from the Antarctic to the tropical regions in and around the center of the equator.

Unlike some species which follow certain migration patterns for mating and feeding periods throughout the seasons the killer whale tends to migrate toward wherever their food is.

In some regions the migration of killer whales are influenced by fish and various other pray, while in other locations they will move in response to where seals or other marine mammals migrate.

Social Structure

The complexity of the social structure of killer whales can be compared to elephants and humans.

Killer whales hunt in pods (also known as groups) of up to 40 whales.

As many as four generations of family members can be seen traveling within the pods.

They are very protective of their young and will attack outsiders if they feel threatened.

Individual killer whales will leave their pods only for short periods of time (a few hours) to forage and mate.

Killer whales usually hunt in groups and use complex hunting methods to attack and capture their prey.

Communication involves using a series of clicks and whistles to inform other dolphins of important information.


Both the male and female killer whales mature around the age of 15 although males usually start reproducing around the age of 21.

The female whale usually produces an offspring once every 3 – 5 years until they reach the age of 40 or are no longer able to reproduce.

The average gestation period (the period between fertilization and birth) for a female killer whale often lasts between 15 - 18 months (average is about 17 months).

In terms of lifespan killer whales can live for an average of 50 to 80 years, although those living in captivity are estimated to have a lifespan of less than 25 years.


Due to their large size, intelligence, playfulness and ability to be trained killer whales have become a very popular crowd pleaser at aquariums and aquatic theme parks.

Some activists argue that keeping killer whales in captivity creates high levels of stress amongst killer whales because of their need for social interaction, open space and family since it is a big part of their natural social structure.

The average life expectancy of killer whales can be reduced by as much as 2/3 when living in captivity causing many of them to only live till around the age of 20.

10 Killer whale facts that may intrigue you

  1. Despite being called “killer whales” these marine mammals are part of the dolphin family. They’re called killer whales because of their large size and expansive diet which includes eating other marine mammals.
  2. Reaching lengths of up to 30 ft. long the killer whale is the largest known species of dolphin in existence.
  3. On average a fully matured killer whales grows to be the same size as a newborn baby blue whale (the largest animal in the world).
  4. Although killer whales eat marine mammals such as whales, dolphins (yes they do eat other dolphins) and porpoises they have never shown an interest in the taste of human flesh and aren’t interested in hunting humans.
  5. Killer whales are known to travel in large groups and spend almost their entire life with family and friends. Children, parents and grandparents can all be found living together in a single pod.
  6. These marine mammals can dive to depths of 900 ft. and hold their breath for over 15 minutes when searching for prey!
  7. Killer whales are able to reach speeds of up to 30 mph for short bursts of time when they are startled or are trying to capture food.
  8. These marine mammals use echolocation to hunt for food, navigate the ocean and maintain awareness of their surroundings.
  9. The killer whale is an apex predator, meaning they have no natural predators of their own and aren’t hunted by other animals.
  10. Killer whales are one of the most intelligent animals on earth and are known to have a highly complex social society that is often compared to other animals such as humans and elephants; they have even been referred to as the wolves of the sea.