Scientific name

Orcinus orca

Where does it get its name?

Killer whales are thought to get their name from observations of these animals hunting large whales, being “whale killers”. The name “orca” comes from their scientific name, Orcinus orca.

Whale SENSE Region Found:


Protection status

Endangered Species act
  • Southern Resident DPS
  • Endangered

Protected throughout its range

Depleted populations: 
AT1 Transient stock

Where to watch:

Open seas and coastal waters

What to watch for:

Blow: Short blow, dissipates quickly

Diving: Will show it’s dorsal fin at the surface, but will not show its fluke on a dive

Source: International Whaling Commission

Body:  Black and white coloration, including large white patch above their eye 

Size: Length: 23 – 32 feet, Weight: Up to 11 tons (females are smaller than males)

Ecotypes in Alaska

While killer whales are still considered one species, they are divided into different populations and distinct ecotypes. These ecotypes are thought to be both socially and genetically isolated. Preferred prey and social structure are the main distinctions that separate these groups.

Source: Hakai Magazine


Prey: fish (including salmon, herring, rockfish, and halibut) and cephalopods (squid)

Social structure: Live in stable matrilineal groups, led by the eldest female, her offspring, and the offspring of her daughter(s). Closely related matrilines come together to form larger social groups called pods.

Transient (Bigg’s)

Prey: marine mammals including seals, porpoises, and large whales

Social structure: Generally form smaller and more fluid social groups that often contain unrelated females and their offspring. Large groups may form as temporary foraging packs. 

Offshore Killer Whales

Prey: fish and sometimes shark

Social structure: less is known about offshore killer whales. It is thought that they have a matrilineal social structure that resident and transient killer whales. However, they are very social, often found in large aggregations of 50 to more than 100 individuals.

Did you know?

  • Killer whales are the largest member of the dolphin family
  • A newborn baby orca weighs as much as a motorbike at about 180kg, and they’re 2-3m long

What do killer whales sound like?

Clip provided by NOAA Fisheries

Threats to killer whales

Learn more about killer whales

Killer Whale Research

See the Whale SENSE Research and Catalogs page