The Killer Whale also referred to as the orca whale or orca, and less commonly as the blackfish, is a toothed whale belonging to the oceanic dolphin family. Killer whales are found in all oceans, from the frigid Arctic and Antarctic regions to tropical seas. Killer whales as a species have a diverse diet, although individual populations often specialize in particular types of prey. Some feed exclusively on fish, while others hunt marine mammals such as sea lions, seals, walruses, and even large whales. Killer whales are regarded as apex predators, lacking natural predators.
Killer whales are highly social; some populations are composed of matrilineal family groups which are the most stable of any animal species. Their sophisticated hunting techniques and vocal behaviors, which are often specific to a particular group and passed across generations, have been described as manifestations of culture.
The IUCN currently assesses the orca's conservation status as data deficient because of the likelihood that two or more killer whale types are separate species. Some local populations are considered threatened or endangered due to prey depletion, habitat loss, pollution (byPCBs), capture for marine mammal parks, and conflicts with fisheries. In late 2005, the "southern resident" population of killer whales that inhabits British Columbia and Washington state waters were placed on the U.S. Endangered Species list.
Wild killer whales are not considered a threat to humans, although there have been cases of captives killing or injuring their handlers at marine theme parks. Killer whales feature strongly in the mythologies of indigenous cultures, with their reputation ranging from being the souls of humans to merciless killers.
A typical killer whale distinctively bears a black back, white chest and sides, and a white patch above and behind the eye. Calves are born with a yellowish or orange tint, which fades to white. It has a heavy and robust body with a large dorsal fin up to 2 m (6.6 ft) tall. Behind the fin, it has a dark grey "saddle patch" across the back. Antarctic killer whales may have pale grey to nearly white backs. Adult killer whales are very distinctive and are not usually confused with any other sea creature. When seen from a distance, juveniles can be confused with other cetacean species, such as the false killer whale or Risso's dolphin. The killer whale's teeth are very strong and covered in enamel. Its jaws are a powerful gripping apparatus, as the upper teeth fall into the gaps between the lower teeth when the mouth is closed. The front teeth are inclined slightly forward and outward, thus allowing the killer whale to withstand powerful jerking movements from its prey while the middle and back teeth hold it firmly in place.
Killer whales are the largest extant members of the dolphin family. Males typically range from 6 to 8 meters (20 to 26 ft) long and weigh in excess of 6 tonnes (5.9 long tons; 6.6 short tons). Females are smaller, generally ranging from 5 to 7 m (16 to 23 ft) and weighing about 3 to 4 tonnes (3.0 to 3.9 long tons; 3.3 to 4.4 short tons). The largest male killer whale on record was 9.8 m (32 ft), weighing over 10 tonnes (9.8 long tons; 11 short tons), while the largest female was 8.5 m (28 ft), weighing 7.5 tonnes (7.4 long tons; 8.3 short tons). Calves at birth weigh about 180 kg (400 lb) and are about 2.4 m (7.9 ft) long. The killer whale's large size and strength make it among the fastest marine mammals, able to reach speeds in excess of 30 knots (56 km/h). The skeleton of the killer whale is of the typical delphinid structure, but is more robust. Its integument, unlike that of most other dolphin species, is characterised by a well-developed dermal layer with a dense network of fascicles of collagen fibers.
Killer whale pectoral fins are large and rounded, resembling paddles. Males have significantly larger pectoral fins than females. At about 1.8 m (5.9 ft) the male's dorsal fin is more than twice the size of the female's and is more of a triangular shape—a tall, elongated isosceles triangle—whereas hers is shorter and more curved. Males and females also have different patterns of black and white skin in their genital areas. Sexual dimorphism is also apparent in the skull; adult males have longer lower jaws than females, and have larger occipital crests.
Killer whales are found in all oceans and most seas. Due to their enormous range, numbers, and density, distributional estimates are difficult to compare, but they clearly prefer higher latitudes and coastal areas over pelagic environments. Occasionally, killer whales swim into freshwater rivers.
Killer whales hunt varied prey; however, different populations or species tend to specialize and some can have a dramatic impact on certain prey species. For example, some populations in the Norwegian and Greenland sea specialize in herring and follow that fish's autumnal migration to the Norwegian coast. Other populations prey on seals. Salmon account for 96% of northeast Pacific residents' diet. About 65% of them are large, fatty Chinook. Chum salmon are also eaten, but smaller sockeye and pink salmon are not a significant food item. Depletion of specific prey species in an area is, therefore, cause for concern for local populations, despite the high diversity of prey. On average, a killer whale eats 227 kilograms (500 lb) each day.
Because some killer whales prey on large whales and sharks, they are considered to be apex predators. They are sometimes called the wolves of the sea, because they hunt in groups like wolf packs.
Day-to-day killer whale behavior generally consists of foraging, travelling, resting and socializing. Killer whales are frequently active at the surface, engaging in acrobatic behaviors such as breaching, spyhopping, and tail-slapping. These activities may have a variety of purposes, such as courtship, communication, dislodging parasites, or play. Spyhopping, a behavior in which a whale holds its head above water, helps the animal view its surroundings.
Resident killer whales swim with porpoises, other dolphins, seals, and sea lions, which are common prey for transient killer whales.