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Killer Whales 101



The Killer whale in, three of a kind.

In oceans all over the world, Orcas are swimming. In the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest, a matrilinial pod of resident Orcas is following the salmon run. Grandma heads up the pod – she makes all the decisions of where they should travel to feed and when they should do it. The family sticks together – sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, 9 to 60 family members interact with one another their entire lives.

While they’re always on the move, this type of Orca doesn’t really migrate – instead, they travel around foraging for food. Resident Orcas primarily eat fish – and they love salmon in the summer. The Orcas communicate with each other and work together to feed – herding the fish into a bait ball and then slapping and whacking the fish, as each Orca eats around3 to 4 percent of its body weight in food every day – that’s a lot of fish! A full-grown adult male can weigh 8 tons!

Meanwhile, in another part of the ocean, a second type of Orca is stealthily swimming along the coast. They’re called transient Orcas. Feeding on warm-blooded animals, these predators travel in pods of 2 to 5 family members. They’re on the hunt! No clicks or calls are made as they swim – other marina mammals can hear those, so the Orcas’ strategy is to sneak up on their prey, surround them – and attack! Transient Orcas are known to eat 22 different types of prey – everything from seals, sea lions, dolphins – even other whale species, sea birds, and moose! Once they attack, the rest of the prey group are on to them and head for safety. So the transient Orcas move on, always on the lookout for the next prey group they’ll find as they swim along the coast.

Hundreds of miles from land, way out in the ocean, is a third, discrete group of Orcas. These Orcas stay near the continental shelf and are called offshore Orcas. They swim in pods of 30 to 60 members and have their own set of vocalizations. There’s not a lot known about these Orcas, as they were just discovered in the early 1990s. Offshore, transient and resident Orcas are distinct groups – they don’t interact and they don’t breed together.

Along with other cetaceans, Orcas have a lot of different behaviors. There’s breaching – where they lift themselves out of the water, and fall back in, fluke slapping or lobtailing – slapping the tail flukes on the water, porpoising – jumping in and out of the water, spyhopping – coming out of the water vertically and looking around, and fluke waving – where only the flukes are out of the water and moving back and forth. The Orca is at the top of the marine food chain – the only things they have to worry about are humans!