Is the ORCA a WHALE or not? - Answer, characteristics and curiosities

Help the development of the site, sharing the article with friends!

The killer whaleOrcinus orca), also known in English as killer whale and in Spanish as killer whale, often generates intrigues of all kinds. From having doubts about whether the orca is a whale or a dolphin, even doubting whether they are really dangerous for people or not. This species belongs to the suborder of the Odontoceti (or toothed whales) and to the order Cetacea (the cetaceans).

If you have ever wondered what type of animal is the killer whale or if the killer whale is a whale or not, we encourage you to continue reading this article that we present to you from Green Ecologist, in which you will see the answers to this question and to other surroundings to this great marine animal.

Is the orca a whale or a dolphin?

Killer whales are the largest species in the world included in the dolphin family (Delphinidae), therefore, orcas are the biggest dolphins existing. They are also known as "Killer whales" and this name can generate confusion, since at present they have no relationship with the whale family (whales), beyond being marine mammals.

However, both whales and killer whales and other dolphins have a common ancestor and all belong to the order of cetaceans, but orcas and whales were separated many years ago into two groups: Odontoceti (orcas, dolphins, belugas, sperm whales) and Mysticeti (Whales); the main difference between these two groups is that Odontoceti or odontocetes have teeth, while the Mysticeti or mysticetes have beards instead of teeth, something that is due to their diet, which is totally different. If you want to know more about the taxonomy of killer whales, we show you here How killer whales are classified.

Thus, they began to be called killer whales for its large size, closer to that of some whales than that of many dolphins, and due to some aspects of their behavior somewhat distorted, as they are magnificent hunters to get their food and draw complex strategies for it.

Killer whale characteristics

These are the main characteristics of orcas, many of which you will see that they are more related to dolphins, which is the group to which they belong, than to whales.

  • One of the most important peculiarities of killer whales is their black and white color, covering the body in such a way that it identifies each individual in a unique way.
  • Also, they are characterized by having a dorsal fin in the upper part of a size that can reach 1.80 meters in length and that atrophies when the killer whales are kept in captivity.
  • Like dolphins, orcas have a blowhole at the top of the head, through which they breathe air above the surface of the water.
  • About how tall is a killer whale, adult males can reach 9.8 meters in length and weigh 10,000 kilos, while adult females can reach 8.5 meters and 7,500 kilos.
  • Like dolphins, orcas are good swimmers and can reach speeds up to 48 km / h, thanks to its hydrodynamic shape and powerful muscles.
  • They are very intelligent marine mammals with a very complex communication system; this system also allows them to orient themselves and identify their prey.
  • They are very long-lived animals, with a life expectancy between 60 and 90 years.

After a long debate about the existence of a single species of killer whale or whether this group should be divided into several different species, it was agreed that there are 3 species of killer whales, as a minimum, according to genetic analyzes and observations of the different ecological specializations and their behavior. Thus, they are distinguished:

  • Killer whales associated with ice in Antarctica.
  • Orcas that feed on mammals on the northwest coast of the American continent.
  • The remaining killer whales. In this species, subspecies can be differentiated, and taxonomic classification can be given when additional data are available.

In addition, there is another animal with which this species is often confused: it is known as the false orca or black orca and it is another type of dolphin. Here you can better know the Difference between killer whale and false killer whale.

What do orcas eat

Killer whales are one of the greatest rulers of the sea, as the only danger they face is the human species. They are found at the top of the food chain and are the biggest predators of the oceans, so they hunt a wide variety of prey sizes, from very small to large animals.

Therefore, they present a very varied diet which includes: octopuses, seals, sea lions, penguins, squid, fish (salmon, herring, tuna …), turtles, seagulls and even sharks (whale shark, basking shark, white shark, hammerhead shark …) and also whales, generally they are young or smaller species, although they also attack adult specimens to feed on certain occasions.

We recommend that you read more about superior consumers in this other post about Tertiary Consumers: what they are and examples, although orcas are sometimes one of the animals that fall into the category of quaternary consumers.

Where do orcas live

Usually, orcas live in groups in small groups, but which may be composed between 6 to 40 killer whales and forming a complex social structuring. Members of a group stay together throughout their lives.

Killer whales have a very extensive distribution and they inhabit all seas and oceans of the planet, especially in ocean basins. However, these marine mammals tend to focus on the higher latitudes, since they have a certain preference for cold waters and, above all, in the upwellings or springs of marine waters, where food is abundant. It is known that different species of killer whales can coexist in the same area, but they feed on different prey and are socially and genetically completely different.

Which is bigger the orca or the whale

Regarding the difference between orca and whale regarding their size and weight, it should be said that the whale is larger than the orca. Whales can measure between 25 and 32 meters and their weight can reach 180 tons. In addition, it is within the whales where we find the largest animal in the world today: the blue whale. Here you can learn more about this huge marine creature and its current situation: Why the blue whale is in danger of extinction.

Orcas curiosities

To finish we are going to comment on some others curiosities of orcas or "killer whales":

  • Among the curiosities about these mammals, we focus first on their eyes. To the simple and distant view, the eyes seem to be simulated by the two white spots that the killer whales have on each side of the head, but this is not the case. His eyes are very small and they are located just below these two white spots, on the black part of your skin.
  • And to finish Are killer whales dangerous? The answer to this question is that they are not dangerous directly and freely. So far there are no known attacks on people by killer whales in the wild. Although there have been known accidents with wild killer whales, usually when crossing their hunting path towards an already fixed prey, something that happens in seconds, and it should also be noted that in captivity their behavior can be seriously altered by the stress that affects them. they generate the conditions to which they are subjected and due to the lack of their freedom.

If you have been curious about all this information and want to learn more about these animals, here you can learn why the orca is in danger of extinction or, more specifically, why many of its populations are and why the species itself is in danger of extinction. vulnerable situation, as well as what we can do to help.

If you want to read more articles similar to Is the orca a whale?, we recommend that you enter our category of Animal Curiosities.

  • Van Elk, N., 2010. Expert advice on the releasability of the rescued killer whale (Orcinus orca) Morgan. Dolfinarium Harderwijk- SOS Dolfijn 1-56.
  • Baird, R. W. (2000). The killer whale. Cetacean societies: field studies of dolphins and whales, 127, 153.
  • National Geographic Spain. (2022). Killer whales. Recovered from:
  • National Geographic Spain. (2022). Whales. Recovered from:
You will help the development of the site, sharing the page with your friends
This page in other languages: