Orca Whale

A surfacing orca at Kenai Fjords National Park. The water is calm, and the front of the head, blowhole, and dorsal fin are visible.
The tall dorsal fin of the orca is an imposing sight in calm waters.

NPS Photo/Paige Calamari

Orca Whale (Killer Whale)Orcinus orca

Orcas are actually the largest dolphin species, although commonly referred to as whales due to their similar appearance. Orcas do have teeth that classify them differently from whales, although Orcas, whales, other dolphins, and porpoises are all in the same order, Cetacea. They have a well-known look of a black back and fins, white underbody, white ovals on the side of its body near the front, and light patches behind the dorsal fin called a “saddle.” The dorsal fin is a tall, sharp triangle, almost similar to that of a classic ‘shark fin.’

Orcas are found in all oceans. Olympic waters are home to resident orca pods, or family groups, meaning they stay in the cool waters all year long. Transient, or migrating, pods will also travel along the coast of the peninsula as they hunt for prey throughout the sea in varying times of the year.

Orcas are excellent hunters and will eat whatever they can catch, which is a lot. They can hunt individually or work together like a pack of wolves to round up prey. They can launch themselves out of the sea, capturing low flying sea birds. They will dive into the depths of the ocean (100 to 500 feet or 30 to 150 meters) on the hunt for small prey such as fish, mid-sized prey such as squid, sharks, and turtles or larger prey such as sea lions, seals, and even whales.

Their diet can vary drastically based on their culture, just like people. Imagine you can only eat what is nearby to your home and you have to hunt or gather for it. If you live by the ocean you might fish for a large halibut that will feed many. If you live in the woods by a small lake, you may eat many small fish that live in it and make up the rest of your meal with mushrooms and plants from the forest to get enough to eat. If you live in the Great Plains, you may share a deer for a meal with others that live nearby. Depending upon where they live, the time of year, and whether or not they migrate, their diet can change or differ from other groups, or pods, of orcas.

There have never been any documented orca attacks on humans in the wild.

Role in the Ecosystem:
Orcas live for an impressive amount of time, ranging from 30 – 90 years in the wild. This means that they can impact the ecosystem for a long time, as well. Orcas are apex predators at the top of the food chain, so nothing naturally hunts them in the water. These massive animals weigh up to 6 tons and can reach 32 ft (9.7 m). Based on their size and athletic capabilities they impact the ecosystem wherever they roam. As very social animals, they have distinct roles within their own family groupings. Just as a family or group of friends may have inside jokes or slang, individual orca pods have unique clicks, whistles, and noises to communicate with each other. They stick to their original social groups, typically, except to gather periodically or to mate. As predators, they can help to maintain populations and keep the ocean balanced. They can also tell the availability of prey species and overall ocean health thanks to their specific group diets and varying roles through the ocean waters.

Fun Fact:
The scientific name Orcinus orca comes from the name “Orcus” which, in Italic and Roman mythology, means god of the underworld and death.

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Last updated: September 21, 2020

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