The killer whale, or Orca, is a toothed whale that is an efficient predator. It has been known to even attack young blue whales. They have only one enemy, human beings. The killer whale is part of the dolphin family and is the largest dolphin. They live in small, close-knit family pods and are very social animals. And stay in these pods for their entire life.

Orcas grow to be about 27-33 feet long and weigh more than 8,000-12,000 pounds. They are black with a few distinctive white patches. They eat a variety of marine mammals, everything from turtles to birds to other whales. Orcas speak using a series of clicks, whistles and pulses. The live up to 50-90 years.

Kingdom Animalia (animals)
Phylum Chordata (vertebrates)
Class Mammalia (mammals)
Order Cetacea (whales and dolphins)
Suborder Odontoceti (toothed whales)
Family Delphinidae (oceanic dolphins)
Genus Orcinus
Species orca

A film, dateline:
1977 Paramount Pictures

Throughout Hollywood history, imitation has been the sincerest form of flattery. If a movie with a new idea or angle becomes successful, other film studios scramble to find something they can produce that will be more or less in the same vein and hopefully hit the same kind of paydirt. Orca (sometimes titled "Orca: The Killer Whale" for video release) was a sad little movie that tried to ride the coattails of the success of Jaws and turned out to be a laughable, nonsensical imitation that bordered on parody. Had they made it as a parody and not taken the story so seriously, we might have had an entertaining movie.

The basic plot of the movie was that a "whale hunter" nets and kills a pregnant killer whale and kills her unborn baby in the process. Her mate escapes and has a vendetta against the whale hunter and will not rest until it takes revenge. Okay, so we know killer whales are intelligent mammals, but do they really have a Charles Bronson "Death Wish" mentality?

Take into account the involvement of over the top director Dino De Laurentiis and the lead role being played by Richard Harris (always available for any film any time) and you can start to smell the burning whale flesh. Why doesn't Richard Harris just go inland? Or write an apology note and promise not to hunt anymore whales? This killer whale seems to have some pretty advanced tracking equipment, so he may also know how to read. Man stalked by killer whale who won't give up. Man seeks advice and is told said killer whale will not give up until either his target is dead or he is killed. So, Richard Harris must save the coast from vicious, angry killer whale attack by using his years of whale hunting experience.

Need anyone be filled in as far as the holes in this plot? The movie tried to use the intelligence of the killer whale as a new twist to make him more fearsome than the lumbering brain dead shark. However, in doing so, it seemed to disprove the intelligence of humans. Let us hope this isn't the first film discovered by a future civilization trying to determine why our civilization died out. Then we will be in trouble.

XWiz notes that killer whales are known to kill for revenge, but certainly not to the extent depicted in this film.

Whales. Killer. Why are these whales called killer?

The scientific name of the killer whale is Orcinus orca, which is the source of their other common name, orca. The name "killer whale" causes many misconceptions about this noble beast. First, killer whales are not whales at all. They are, in fact, dolphins (the largest dolphins, actually). Second, they are not particularly violent creatures. Some are hunters, and prey on a variety of creatures, such as squid, shark, otters, sea lions, penguins, birds, octopii, dolphins, and salmon. However, there are no confirmed reports of an orca ever attacking a human being in the wild. This is, perhaps, quite surprising, given how badly the human race has treated them.

Orcas are mammals, like (hopefully) you and me. They do all of the normal mammal stuff like maintain a relatively warm blood temperature, bear their young live, and breathe air. They live together in groups (called pods) that consist of anywhere from two to forty members. These pods are close-knit and last from one generation to the next.

The killer whale can boast that it is among the fastest swimming marine mammals, traveling at speeds up to 30 miles per hour. Having no desire to gain a reputation for showing off, however, they usually restrict their swimming to a more sedate 2-6 miles per hour. They generally dive 100-200 feet below the surface, and remain there for approximately 4-5 minutes.

The lifespan of the mighty orca is not well known. Reported lifespans range between 25 and 90 years. They typically grow to approximately 20-30 feet in length and weigh 4-8 tons. Females have greater longevity than males, but males are usually larger than females -- although neither one would fit comfortably in your ten gallon aquarium at home.

In fact, many believe that they are not comfortable in captivity at all. In the wild they are able to travel 50-100 miles in a single day. Clearly this is not possible in even the most spacious confines. Further, most captive killer whales are kept alone in relatively uninteresting surroundings. Orcas are relatively intelligent creatures, and they are highly social. They do not survive well out of the wild, dying as much as three times as frequently in captivity as they do in the wild. Given that many of the arguments in favor of captivity are based on the dangers of the wild, this is a disturbing statistic.

Killer whales have no natural predators, although sharks occasionally attack old or weak orcas. Human beings are the only animals that hunt them. These large, powerful creatures are at the top of their food chain. Owing to their great strength and size, as well as their tendency to hunt in groups, orcas are able to hunt creatures that are much larger than themselves. They have been observed hunting whales, which is the source of the name "killer whale". Originally they were referred to as "whale killers", but the words became reversed at some point. This has led to some bad PR for these poor animals. A prime example of this was the late 1970's horror movie Orca, which tells the heartwarming tale of a bloodthirsty killer whale.

Now you know why these whales are called killer.

Orcinus orca, which is commonly known as the killer whale, is a marine mammal and the largest species of dolphin. When a calf is born it is seven feet (two m) long and weight a 450 lbs. (200 kg). If a male, or bull, it will grow from 20 to 30 feet (6 to 9 m) long and if female, or cow, 15 to 25 feet (4.5 to 7.5 m) long, and could weight eight tons (seven tonnes). They are colored with black and white patches that are unique from orca to orca. Because of these unique markings marine biologist are able to identify particular orcas and track the lives of these magnificent creatures.

Other then their size difference, males and females are sexed by the shape and size of their dorsal fin. Bulls have a long straight fin, which will sometimes grow to 6 feet in length after maturity and has a tendency to flop over when they breach. Cows have a smaller crescent-shaped fin that, unlike bulls, looks more like the typical dolphin or shark dorsal fin.

Orcas live in groups, or pods, of any number from two to fourty. Although little is known about their social interactions, they do have a "language" which they used to communicate. They seem to be matriarchal. They almost never fight within their pod other than playfully, but will fight with other pods for different reason such as an invasion of territory. Like other dolphins, they use echolocation. Also they enjoy having sexual intercourse. Only dolphins, dogs, chimps and us Homo sapiens are known to have this blessing.

The name orca was given to these animals by the ancient Romans, which means "demon" or "demon from hell." One can take out a great white shark and a pod can take down a large whale. This is where they got their name of asesina ballena, or "whale killer", given to them by Spanish whalers. The term was poorly translated "killer whale" (asesina is assassin or killer, ballena is whale). The term "killer whale" is so common the Spanish now use its translation, ballena asesina.

Contrary to popular belief, sharks are not the kings of sea, orcas are. With no natural predators (other than man) they are at the top of the oceanic food chain. However, most orcas don't eat whales or other marine mammals. Although orcas are the only Cetacea known to eat other mammals, resident orcas, or those that stay relatively in one area, eat fish, shrimp, turtles, and squid among others but not mammals. Transient orcas, or those that constantly travel, will eat just about anything they can get their pointed three-inch teeth into, including those formerly listed, whales, other dolphins, otters, seals, and others. There has been no known case of an orca attacking or eating a human in the wild. Although in captivity and living in poor conditions orcas have attacked their trainers.

Although I have seem many in the wild, the only orca I have seen in captivity was Bjossa at the Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver, BC. For you aquarium buffs like me, if you get a chance to go to Vancouver go to the aquarium! It's one of the best in the world. They don't have orcas any more (they don't wish to capture one in the wild and are waiting for an orca to be born in captivity) but their Beluga whales are excellent. Bjossa, being a resident orca and not prone to eating marine mammals, had a bottlenose dolphin for a pin pal, that is they lived in the same pin. They were fun to watch as they played together and with the trainers.

Kingdom: Animalia (animals)
Phylum: Chordata (vertebrates)
Class: Mammalia (mammals)
Order: Cetacea (whales and dolphins)
Suborder: Odontoceti (toothed whales)
Family: Delphinidae (dolphins)
Genus: Orcinus
Species: orca


Killer Whale Hunting Methods

Killer whales on the hunt is one of the most awe-inspiring sights in nature.

With the exception of humans, killer whales will hunt and eat virtually anything that goes anywhere near the sea, including fish, sharks, squid, octopi, seals, sea lions, walruses, otters, sea turtles, porpoises, dolphins, penguins, sea gulls, and whale calves. But most spectacular of all is when killer whales team up to attack juvenile or even fully grown whales that stray too far from the protection of their pods, a feat which earned these largest of dolphins their original Spanish name, "whale killers."

Biologists have classified three types of killer whale pod. "Offshore pods" range over huge distances away from the shore, travelling in large groups and feeding mainly on schools of deep-sea fish. Because they live away from the land, these elusive pods can go for years without being sighted by humans, and thus their exact behavior remains the least well understood.

"Resident pods" are killer whale pods that live year round in a very small area, usually near the safety of the coast. These pods tend to consist of smaller or runt-sized adults who can't compete with the powerful offshore pods. Resident pods also feed primarily on fish.

Finally there are the "transient pods," which migrate up and down the coastline to follow their prey: large marine mammals. It is these pods that are most frequently witnessed attacking whales.

Killer whales usually hunt in teams of two or three, working together to isolate and kill their prey, but when attacking the largest targets, adult gray whales for example, teams of six or even eight killer whales are known. Male killer whales usually hunt alone, so most group hunting is done by females and juveniles under their care.

Killer whales are extremely intelligent, and this is reflected in their hunting methods. Communication between the killer whales, using a language of clicks and whistles, is crucial to their cooperation during the attacks. The killer whales also call other whales in their family group, often from up to 10 miles away, to share in the feast once their kill is complete.

When hunting as a team, each individual killer whale performs a different task. For example, if three killer whales are attacking a whale calf, the killer whales will work together to separate the calf from its mother, after which one killer whale will run interference to keep the mother at bay, one killer whale will repeatedly ram the calf to stun it, and the last killer whale will repeatedly jump on the calf to drown it. The killer whales also endeavor to share risk equally over successive hunts, taking turns at the most dangerous of jobs, which in this example would be warding off the desperate mother and her vicious fluke attacks.

Over the centuries, the killer whales have developed a variety of attack tactics which they continually hone and adapt. Schools of fish are corralled and driven into shallow waters where the can be killed with ease. Seals are herded toward killing grounds at the base of cliffs. Smaller dolphins and porpoises are flipped into the air with a powerful body slam, after which they are momentarily stunned and soon become a tasty snack. Whale calves, runts, and stragglers are systematically isolated from their pods, driven into shallow water where they can't dive, and sometimes even forcibly beached. To attack the largest whales, four or five killer whales will repeatedly ram the whale into a stupor, while two or three will jump on the whale, forcing it down under the water where it can't breathe and drowns. The killer whales are adept at using the environment to their advantage, and are known to lay ambushes at constricted points along migration routes.

Most of these tactics are complicated and have to be taught and learned. Killer whales have been known to prolong attacks on a stunned whale for hours while they repeatedly demonstrate various techniques to the juveniles.

The one seagoing creature the killer whales never attack is human beings. There has never been a single documented case of a killer whale even so much as accidentally attacking a human, unlike those pea-brained sharks that routinely mistake wet-suited surfers for tasty seals. I suppose that shows how smart the killer whales are - they know not to attack the only animal that can kick their tails in a fight. Indeed, the killer whales seem to recognize humans as kindred spirits as fellow scourges of the sea. Amazingly, there have been several documented cases of a wild killer whale coming up to a raft of human whale watchers after a hunt to present a mouthfull of freshly killed fish as a friendly gift.

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