Killer whale - biology fast facts

Common Name:

Killer whale

Scientific Name:

Orcinus orca

Body size:

Adult female up to approximately 8m; weighs up to 7,500 kg; dorsal fin up to 1m

Adult male up to approximately 10m; weighs up to 10,000 kg; dorsal fin up to 2m

Newborn calf up to 2.5m; weighs up to 200 kg

Vocal Behavior:

Killer whales produce three types of vocalizations: echolocation clicks are used for orientation and to find prey, whistles appear to function in short-range communication, and pulsed calls are highly stereotyped and likely function in long range communication. Repertoires of pulsed calls differ between social groups and populations.

Physical Characteristics:

Orcas are distinctively coloured. The dorsal surface is mostly black except for a grey or white saddle patch behind the dorsal fin. The underside of the body and underside of flukes are white and there is a white eyespot behind each eye.

Travel Speeds:

Killer whales are one of the fastest marine mammals in the sea. The record holder is a male timed at 55.5 km/h (34.5 mph). During short bursts they have been recorded to travel at 45 km/h. However, their typical traveling speed is 6-8 km/h.


Diet: Fish, especially salmon with a focus on chinook and chum

Dorsal fin: Rounded tip usually with sharper angle at the rear corner

Saddle patch: Open saddle patch often seen, meaning that the all grey/white saddle patch is broken up with black

Social structure: Live in a matriarchal society: male and female offspring remain with their mother as long as she is alive

Average group size: 10-25 whales

Sounds: Very vocal. Each pod uses a different dialect. However, pods can share some calls and communicate with one another

Typical dive times: 3 – 5 minutes

Distribution: All along the western coast of North America from Southeast Alaska to California

Conservation status: 

Northern Resident – Threatened

See: Species At Risk Public Registry

Southern Resident – Endangered

See: Species At Risk Public Registry

(US Endangered Species Act)


Diet: Seals, sea lions, porpoises, juvenile whales and other marine mammals

Dorsal fin: Fin tip is generally pointed. Dorsal fin will often have nicks in it or large scars

Saddle patch: Saddle patch large and uniformly grey/white

Social structure: Much looser than the resident form. Offspring will often leave a matriline with their own offspring. Adult males have also been observed to separate from their matriline. However, broken up matrilines will often meet together, or matrilines/individuals will travel with other matrlines/individuals.

Average group size: 4-6 whales

Sounds: Are stealth hunters that echolocate rarely, presumably use passive listening to find their prey. Tend to vocalize during or directly following a kill

Typical dive times: 7 – 10 minutes

Distribution: All along the western coast of North America from Southeast Alaska to California.

Conservation status: 

West Coast Transient – Threatened

See: Species At Risk Public Registry;
AT1 Transient – Depleted (US Marine Mammal Protection Act)


Diet: Not certain: scientists believe they feed on sharks and other fish species

Dorsal fin: Rounded over tip, usually lacks the sharper angle at the rear corner

Saddle patch:  Either solid grey/white or open

Social structure: Unknown but usually encountered in large groups

Average group size: 20-30+ whales

Sounds: Distinct calls from transients and residents. Frequently vocal, use lots of echolocation

Typical dive times: Unknown

Distribution: Far from coastline along continental shelf. They have been encountered near Queen Charlottes, the West Coast of Vancouver Island, and have been seen as far south as Los Angeles. Estimated range is from Southern California to the Aleutian Islands

Conservation status: 


See: Species At Risk Public Registry