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Status: Endangered. 

Designated endangered in Canada in 2001; United States in 2005.

About Orcas

Status: Endangered.

Designated endangered in Canada in 2001; 

United States in 2005.

Killer whales are the largest members of the dolphin family.

Physical Features:

Killer whales have a striking black coloring with grayish-white saddle patch and white belly. Much like their dolphin cousins, they have a conical-shaped head with a small beak and 10-13 conical teeth on both the upper and lower jaw. They have paddle-shaped pectoral fins, and a distinct dorsal fin (curved in females and immature males; straight and up to about six feet tall in males). The male orca's dorsal fin reaches its full height at age 15-25 years.


Unique markings and dorsal fin shape allow Center for Whale Research staff to identify individual orcas. The whale's dorsal fin varies in shape and size, often with distinctive nicks and scars. The saddle patch also differs from whale to whale in shape, size, color, and scarring. In the case of the Southern Resident orcas, individual identification allows CWR staff to maintain a precise census of the population; accounting for every whale on an annual basis.


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Cetacea
Suborder: Odontoceti
Superfamily: Delphinoidea
Family: Delphinidae

Orcas are in the suborder Odontoceti, or toothed whales; referred to as Odontocetes. Odontocetes differ from other cetaceans (whales and dolphins) in that they have teeth instead of baleen (such as is the case with humpbacks and grey whales). Orcas (killer whales) are one of 35 species in the oceanic dolphin family, Delphinidae. Although they are referred to as whales, orcas are in fact the largest member of the dolphin family and are physiologically similar to dolphins. Other alike species include Pygmy killer whales, False killer whales, and Pilot whales.


Although orcas tend to aggregate in cold water, they live in all the world's oceans, from the Antarctic to the tropics. Unlike other whales that follow predictable seasonal migration patterns, orcas tend to go wherever their food source is, making their movement patterns much less predictable. Salmon or herring migrations seasonally influence the distributions of some orcas. Other orca ecotypes (e.g., Transients) move in response to the location of their marine mammal prey, such as seals and sea lions.

Natural History:

The life cycle of orcas is similar to that of humans. Female orcas become mature around age 15. Among the Southern Resident orcas, the youngest known mother is J37. Mating and calving take place year round. Gestation varies from 15 to 18 months. Females attain sexual maturity in their early teens. The average birthing rate now one viable calf per female every 9 or 10 years. Females are reproductive until about age 40. Calf mortality is high during the first year of life with approximately 37%–50% of all calves dying. Calves will typically nurse until age two but will begin to eat some solid food around age one.


The average lifespan of female orcas in the wild is 50 years, with several individuals living as long as 80–100 years (estimated).

Male orcas become fully sexually mature at age 25. Between ages 12 and 15, their dorsal fin begins to grow taller and straighter, indicating the onset of sexual maturity. Male orcas typically don’t mate until after the age of 20. 
Males in the wild live 29 years on average, to a maximum of 50–60 years. J1, who died in 2010, was estimated to be 59 years old.

​A captive orca's lifespan is typically much shorter, often by 25 years or more.


The Latin name is Orcinus orca. Common names are orca or killer whale, while other names include blackfish, grampus, and killer. Most English-speaking scientists use the name killer whale, although orca is increasingly used, in particular by the general public. The name killer whale originated from the Spanish whaler’s term “whale killer,” based on their observations of orcas hunting other types of whales. In ancient Roman mythology, the genus name, Orcinus, means "of the kingdom of the dead," or belonging to “Orcus," ruler of the dead. The species name in Latin, orca, literally means "the shape of a barrel or cask," likely due to the orca's body shape. This term is thought to be borrowed from the Greek word that was commonly used to refer to whales.

Size & Weight:

Orcas are the largest members of the dolphin family. Males are larger than females, and adult males are distinguishable (sexually dimorphic) by the increased size of their dorsal fin at sexual maturity
(about 25 years).   

  • Male orcas usually grow to an average of 20-26 feet (6-8 m) and weigh 12,000 lb or more (5,400 kg)

  • Females evolve to an average of 18-22 feet (6-7 m) and weigh between 8,000–11,000 lb (3,500-5,000 kg).

  • Calves weigh about 400 lb at birth (180 kg) and are between 7-8 feet long (2-3 m).

The largest male orca on record measured 32 feet (9.8 m) and weighed over 20,000 lb (9,000 kg), while the largest female measured 28 feet (8.5 m) and weighed 15,000 lb (6800 kg).

The grayish-white saddle patch varies from individual to individual in shape, size, color, and scarring.

Photo above: J2/Granny (left), who died in 2016, was the oldest known Southern Resident killer whale. Her estimated age was 106 years. J1/Ruffles (right) was determined to be the oldest male in the SRKW community: 59 years old when he died in 2010.



World OCEANS Day - June 8

  1. Next to humans, Orcas are the second most widespread mammal on the planet (includes all eco types of Orcas).

  2. Orcas have the second largest brain by mass, with a larger encephalization quotient than chimpanzees.

  3. Grandmothers are key to the survival of Southern Resident killer whale family groups.

  4. Southern Resident male orcas usually grow to an average of 20-26 feet (6-8 m) and weigh 12,000 lb or more (5,400 kg). Females evolve to an average of 18-22 feet (6-7 m) and weigh between 8,000–11,000 lb (3,500-5,000 kg).

  5. Neither sons nor daughters disperse from the family group in resident killer whales. This unusual family structure has only evolved in a small number of toothed whales. In all other animals one or both sex disperses.

  6. A  Southern Resident orca calfs weigh about 400 lb at birth (180 kg) and are between 7-8 feet long (2-3 m).

  7. Orcas can hold their breath for up to 15 minutes. However, they have many different dive patterns ranging from shallow dives of less than one minute to deeper dives of three to five minutes.

  8. Celebrate World OCEANS DAY!
    So, what can we do to help these ocean species to survive and thrive? We think it is best, to begin with educating yourself about the world’s oceans and its inhabitants. Just doing this will likely lead you to make day-to-day choices that will assist in improving the well-being of our oceans, making them healthier places to live.

  9. Orcas can only breathe voluntarily, which means they will drown if they fall completely asleep in the same way as people. Studies indicate that Orcas probably sleep by shutting down one half of their brain at a time, which allows them to maintain enough awareness to swim to the surface to breathe.

  10. Baby orcas are born black and peachy-orange color. Scientists believe this caused by a thinner blubber layer, and as a result, the blood vessels are nearer the surface of the skin, giving the calves this color. 

  11. An adult Southern Resident orca eats 200-500 lb of fish per day. Salmon abundance (specifically Chinook salmon) is the key to the survival of our Southern Resident killer whale (SRKW) population.

  12. Female Southern Resident orcas share all the fish they catch — an important reason for the Pods to stay together, to feed each other.

  13. The gestation period of an Orca is 15-18 months. The longest of any whale.

  14. Female Southern Resident orcas are one of only 5 species of over 5000 mammals that go through menopause.

  15. An orca's dorsal fin is one of it's distinguishing feature (saddle patch and eye patch are also distinguishing features),  but it also helps regulate their body temperature.

  16. Orcas generally travel at around 3-4 mph, but if they have somewhere to be, they can go at about ten mph. The top speed is about 30 mph, but they can only sustain that pace for short intervals. 

  17. Orcas create sound by forcing air through the sinus passages in their head. Then it passes through the fatty tissue in the melon located on the whale's forehead.

  18. The name Orca is a derivative of their scientific name Orcinus orca. This name is more commonly used now.

  19. All Orcas are born with whiskers. The calves lose this facial hair soon after birth, but the hair follicles remain visible.

  20. Orcas use echolocation to hunt. They will make a sound that travels through the water until sound waves hit an object. Then, the sound wave will bounce back to the orca. 

  21. Orcas coloring helps conceal their outline in the water. This is beneficial while they are hunting food.

  22. Female Southern Resident orcas have a significantly longer lifespan than males. Females live for decades after they undergo menopause and can no long reproduce.

  23. Orcas do not have smelling organs or a lobe of the brain dedicated to smelling, so it is believed that they cannot smell. They have good senses of sight and hearing and can hear better than dogs and even bats.

  24. Orcas are able to control the flow of blood to their hearts and brains, which keeps them from suffering from a lack of oxygen when they are deep underwater.

It's a FACT

Orca Facts

The SRKWs require mostly Chinook salmon to survive and reproduce, and humans are preventing these whales from catching an adequate amount of their needed prey.

Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) held a workshop to discuss the availability of prey and prey requirements for the Southern Resident killer whales, and evaluation of potential mitigation measures for their conservation. CWR were invited to participate in the workshop and contributed this summary of SRKW Demographics for workshop participants. This comprehensive summary was prepared by Jane Cogan from CWR data over the past forty plus years and was adapted for web presentation by Lisa Moorby, our webmaster. The quick take-home summary is that the SRKW are in very dire straits with fewer than thirty reproductively capable individuals (effective population <30); there is no possibility of increasing the effective population in the next decade; and, they are on track for extinction in the calculable future. Simply put, the whales require food (mostly Chinook salmon) to survive and reproduce, and humans are not managing to allow them enough for a great variety of reasons.

SOUTHERN RESIDENT KILLER WHALES A Distinct Population Segment of Orcinus orca Currently Endangered and at Risk of Extinction

Part #1



Part #2



Derivative Use - 2017 Southern Resident Update from Center for Whale Research (CWR)
Important notes: 11/14/17

  • Each of these graphs is marked with a copyright notice to ensure association of this data with CWR. Please respect the copyright.

  • Use of data originating from CWR in media releases, presentations, independent research, and publications requires prior approval from CWR.

  • Derivative use of data originating from CWR, including use of any of the graphs contained in this package, requires prior written approval from CWR.

  • Posting any of this material, in any form or forum, on any other website, including social media, is prohibited. If others have an interest, please refer them to CWR.

© 2017 Center for Whale Research. Derivative Use Requires Approval. J. Cogan for Center for Whale Research. DFO Workshop Nov. 15-17, 2017

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