Mother and juvenile whale at the surface
2 whales breaching
Mothers and juvenile surfacing
White markings and dorsal fin
Scientific name: Orcinus orca.
Killer whales have a unique black and white pattern, with a white patch above the eye. They have a broad grey ‘saddle’ that is behind the dorsal fin. Their tall dorsal fin is centre of the body; in males, this can be up to 20% of the body length, whereas in females it is smaller and more sickle shaped.
Killer whales can be up to 10 meters in length. They have a bushy and visible blow. Calves are born with a yellowish to orange tint that will fade to white.
Habitat and distribution
It is estimated that there are 50,000 in the wild. They are found all over the world, from shallow coastal waters to deep waters, from tropical waters to colder waters.
It can be seen all around the UK and Scotland; they are annually seen off Cornwall and in the Western Approaches. They are also seen and recorded in the deep water of the Bay of Biscay.
In Scotland, there is a population of Killer whales that stay there all the time, at this moment in time there are only 8 there.
Killer whales in live pods of about 3 to 20 individuals, though it has been known that pods as big as 50 have been seen. When the pods are resting, they move slowly, often breathing synchronously or they are motionless longing on the surface. When they are hunting or traveling, they are seen frequently leaping out of the water creating large splashes on re-entering.
Killer whales are known to be acrobatic, doing belly flops, somersaults and fin slaps. It has been observed that some populations of killer whales adopt inshore habitats such as feeding on migratory fish, whereas some adapt more offshore habitats such as hunting and feeding on prey, such as seals and dolphins.
Confusion with other species
Due to this size and distinguishing feature of males, they are not commonly confused with other species. Female killer whales are sometimes confused with Risso’s dolphin due to the similar fin shape.
False killer whale: fin is shorter and more curved.
Killer whales are often taken from the wild to be put into aquariums for human entertainment. They are also threatened by pollution, which can have the ability to prevent them from having offspring, and they can become entangled in lost or discarded fishing gear.
Killer whale pods share a similar hierarchy to elephants: the oldest female oversees where they go and what they eat. They tend to stick as a family, and there can be as many as 4 generations of killer whales in one pod.