Killer Whales

Source: One Species at a Time/Ari Daniel - December 25, 2017 in Radio

Killer Whales
Photo: NOAA

Killer whales (Orcinus orca) live in all the oceans between the Arctic and Antarctic ice packs. Given this enormous range and their predatory lifestyle, it is not surprising that they are adaptable, with excellent memory, intelligence, and a capacity for social complexity. They tend to live in pods of fewer than 10 animals, built around a stable core of 2-3 generations of related females – mothers, daughters, sisters, and aunts. This is shown by genetic studies of pods living in the same area. Adult females without calves, and adult males, may help care for and train younger whales to hunt, especially when a reproducing female is rearing more than one offspring. Cooperation extends to hunting, and these animals are known to attack and drown larger whales by swarming them from all sides. Orcas may even beach themselves temporarily to snatch seals, or knock them off ice floes by ramming the ice. Their prey includes larger marine mammals, fish, birds, and cephalopods.

Become a TerraMar Ambassador to Killer Whales and learn more about the species here.


Ari: From the Encyclopedia of Life, this is One Species at a Time. I’m Ari Daniel. Before becoming a radio producer, I used to be a killer whale biologist. And I still have a few friends who study killer whales. Like Volker Deecke.

Deecke: Killer whales are great animals. They fascinate me a lot.

Ari: He’s a biologist at the University of Cumbria in England.

Deecke: I love the challenge of having to think like a killer whale. You know, having to strip your biases as a terrestrial, visually based mammal, and now have to try and understand what life might be like for an animal that lives in a 3-dimensional world where vision is not very useful, where sound travels for large distances.

Ari: Whales are both real and mythic at once.

Deecke: The one thing that I always notice about whales is people use them as a canvas, you know? The white whale, people just color them in and project whatever they want onto them. And the less you know about an animal, the more you can do that.

Ari: So before we go any further, let’s color in the killer whale – scientific name Orcinus orca. They’re found all over the world, but each population feeds on something different. In Norway, they eat fish, mostly herring. In Alaska, one population eats marine mammals, including seals and porpoises. But it’s not just the diets that distinguish the two groups.

These are the Norwegian fish eaters. Their calls are loud. They echolocate, using sound like an acoustic strobe light to scan their surroundings and find fish. Now, here’s a recording of the Alaskan mammal eaters, in pursuit.

They’re silent. The seals and porpoises they eat have excellent hearing, and a vocal killer whale would tip them off and help them escape. But hearing in fish tends to be poor. So it’s okay for those killer whales to be vocal.

Both types of orcas spend a lot of time in pursuit, waiting for and following their prey. And it’s not unlike how killer whale researchers wait for the whales to show up – chatting with one another, scanning the water from a windy bluff.

Deecke: I mean, you’re just looking for little irregularities in the water. Anything vertical really sticks out on this horizontal landscape.

Ari: Volker Deecke is speaking from Fitful Head, a lookout in the south of the Shetland Islands, which are about 80 miles to the north of Scotland. He and his field team want to know whether the Shetland whales eat fish or mammals. But to get close enough, they first have to find the animals by spotting them from land. And that takes a lot of waiting. Andy Foote is a member of the field team.

Foote: I think when you first get into working with whales, you almost jump at every wave or marker buoy. And as you get a little bit more experienced, you wait for it to come up a second time and make sure, and you’re like, ha, OK. Just that sense of excitement, where all of a sudden your – the hairs on the back of your neck stand up a little bit, and then you’ve got your whale.

Ari: Day after day, while we stood there looking for whales and not seeing any, there were often tourists and locals observing us, trying to make out why we watched the waters around us so hopefully. Some folks understood what brought us here…like Gordon.

Gordon: When I was a kid, a teenager, we used to go bus spotting.

Ari: Oh, yeah.

Gordon: And we had special books with all the buses in them and all the different types of buses. And we used to go in different garages and sit behind the wheel and vroom, vroom, vroom, you know?

Ari: That was your thing.

Gordon: That was my thing.

Ari: So you can understand how you could get really interested in something?

Gordon: I can understand how a person could be interested in a worm or a killer whale or a bird or whatever.

Ari: But others weren’t quite so convinced, like Tom.

Tom: Could I do it? Not really.

Ari: How long would you wait up here?

Tom: Well, if I thought I was going to see one, I’d probably stay a half-hour or an hour. Ari: Would you stay here for three months?

Tom: Oh, no, no, no. No, thank you.

Ari: In three months, Volker Deecke’s team only managed to follow killer whales in Shetland 12 times. But it’s a start. They saw the orcas targeting marine mammals, namely harbor seals, as prey. But they can’t rule out the possibility that they feed on fish too. That just means more research, and Deecke’s looking forward to it.

Deecke: Having the time to immerse yourself into the place and just go beyond the first impression, I think is a real privilege in itself, whales or no whales. So, that’s certainly what keeps me going.

Rocco: With killer whales, it’s incredible.

Ari: That’s field assistant Alice Rocco.

Rocco: Like the first time we saw them, to me the male was extremely sensual – you know, like he had these sexy movements going on. Looked like he was a dancer or something – a really good dancer.

Ari: And it’s not just the biologists that get infatuated. Local Shetlander Derrick Herning watches killer whales from shore.

Herning: You get a thrill from seeing a killer whale. I mean, I know they’re cruel, that they play around with the seals. They toss them up in the air and all the rest of it. But it’s still a marvel of nature, this – it’s a beautiful whale, the killer whale. So I take my hat off to it. I don’t wear a hat, but never mind.

Ari: Killer whales capture the imagination. And maybe that’s because of their very elusiveness, the way they disappear beneath the water’s surface into their own world, leaving us behind on the shore, wishing we could see them just once more. A love like that can sustain you for a lifetime.

I made a video of my time studying killer whales in Norway. Have a look at eol.org.

Our series, One Species at a Time, is produced by Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. I’m Ari Daniel Shapiro.


The Encyclopedia of Life has gathered information from all over the world to create the largest repository of species known to science. Their mission is to increase awareness and understanding of living nature through an Encyclopedia of Life that gathers, generates, and shares knowledge in an open, freely accessible and trusted digital resource.

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