Killer whales – also called orcas – are fearsome ocean predators. They are mammals, but are they actually whales? Read these killer whale facts for kids to find out …
This article is part of our Arctic Animals series.
Killer Whale Information For Kids
The killer whale is the largest member of the oceanic dolphin family, Delphinidae.
Dolphins (including the orca), sperm whales, beaked whales and porpoises are all members of a larger group of animals known as ‘toothed whales‘.
This group is itself part of the group of animals known as ‘whales’ – or Cetacea, to give it its scientific name.
The Cetaceans’ closet living relative is the hippopotamus!
The cooperative methods of hunting exhibited by killer whales have also earned them the nickname, ‘Wolves of the Sea’. Today, killer whales are most commonly called Orca.
Killer Whale Markings
Killer whales have a distinctive coloration, with black backs and fins, a lighter ‘saddle patch’ behind their dorsal fin, and white undersides. They also have white patches on their sides and behind their eyes.
The huge black dorsal fin is unmistakable. It can grow up to 1.8 m (almost 6 ft.) and its shape and condition can be used to identify individual killer whales in monitored populations.
Killer Whale Size
Male killer whales grow to around 8 m ( 26 ft.) in length and around 6 metric tonnes (6.6 short tones) in weight.
Females are smaller, growing to around 7m ( 23 ft.) in length and 4 tonnes in weight. Even baby killer whales can be 8 feet (2.5 meters) long and weigh as much as 400 pounds (180kg)!
There are bigger killer whales out there: specimens almost 32 feet (10 meters) long and weighing 7,500kg (16,500 pounds) have been recorded!
Where do Killer Whales Live?
Killer whales can be found in all of the world’s oceans, and inhabit both polar and tropical regions. They are the most widely distributed mammals after man. However, killer whales are most abundant in cold, temperate coastal areas.
The world population of Killer whales is estimated at around 50,000 animals.
Killer whales live and hunt in groups called ‘pods’ which may be resident or migratory.
Killer Whale Facts For Kids: What Do Killer Whales Eat?
Killer whales like to feast on fish (including sharks), cephalopods (squid and octopus) as well as other marine mammals, and sometimes even turtles and seabirds.
Killer whales are skilled hunters and use methods such as ‘wave-hunting’ to prey on seals. The Killer whales will ‘spy-hop’ to find seals resting on ice floes and then work together in groups to generate waves, disrupting the ice and causing the seal to slip into the water where the Killer whales can kill it.
Like other dolphin species, Killer whales can use echolocation to hunt, producing sound waves that bounce off target objects or prey animals, letting the Killer whales know information such as the size or the animal and the distance to it.
Studies have shown that resident populations tend to feast on fish whereas migratory ones prefer marine mammals.
Killer Whale Video
The video below shows some amazing underwater views of killer whales. Skip to around 1:34 to get the best views!
Killer Whale Families
Female Killer whales give birth to a single baby (calf) every 3 to 10 years after 17 months of pregnancy. The mothers will assist the baby in reaching the surface to breath within 10 seconds of birth.
Killer whales are incredibly social animals and live in pods of up to 40 individuals, and adolescent females will assist mothers with their babies. Killer whales are also known to share food and protect sick or injured individuals.
Like all dolphin species, Killer whales are excellent communicators, and each pod has distinctive noises (‘accents’) that are recognized by members. In the wild, female Killer whales can live as long as 80 years, and males 50-60 years.
Threats to Killer Whales
Killer whales are listed as ‘data deficient’ on the IUCN Red List. Killer whales are not extensively hunted by humans, but have long been captured to be kept in captivity. Due to their incredible intelligence, Killer whales can be trained to do amazing tricks. However, conditions in captivity are not well suited to such large, social animals and captive Killer whales tend to die a lot younger than those in the wild. Killer whales are also sensitive to over-fishing and offshore energy activities such as oil exploration and construction of wind farms.
Several charities are dedicated to whale and dolphin conservation, one of which is Whale and Dolphin Conservation.
10 Killer Whale Facts For Kids
- Killer whales are actually dolphins.
- The dorsal fin of males can be nearly 2 meters (ft) tall.
- Killer whales ‘speak’ to each other using distinct clicks and whistles.
- The teeth of Killer whales can be up to 3 inches long, and some even longer.
- Killer whales can dive as deep as 30 meters during hunting.
- Killer whales can swim in bursts at up to 30 mph (48hm/h).
- Newborn calves can swim within 30 minutes of birth.
- White patches above the eyes can often by mistaken for the eyes.
- Killer whale distribution is seasonally limited by pack ice.
- The scientific name for Killer whales is Orcinus orca. Orcus was a mythological Roman god of the netherworld with a fierce reputation, and Orca means ‘the shape of a barrel or cask’ in Latin.
Want to learn about more amazing animals? Check out our Arctic Animals list.