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Are Orcas Dolphins?

Killer Whale Mother and Calf

If you have been wondering if dolphins are whales, the answer is…YES! The next question frequently asked is, “are orcas dolphins?” and that answer again is simply…YES! Read on to discover why orcas are dolphins and the different types of killers whales found off the west coast of North America.

Orcinus orca is the largest member of the entire Delphinidae family. Their sheer size and hunting preference for smaller whales is why this species was named “killer whales.” Let’s explore why killer whales are dolphins and dive deeper into the various ecotypes of this unique species. Read below to learn more about how the most powerful animal in the entire ocean is also a highly social, high-flying acrobat and is ‘delphinately’ the apex predator of the sea.

What species are orcas, dolphins categorized?

Regardless of individual ecotype, no other oceanic animal is as intelligent or supreme master of its domain. These animals can also be discreet killers, tactful, hostile, and aggressive. When it comes to killer whales, their loyalty to the family comes first. Orcas are protective, loving, committed to family, highly communicative, and frequently the most misunderstood creatures in the sea. Orcas are found in every ocean all over the world. These beautiful creatures are orcas, dolphins who share the whale domain with other toothed whales within the Odontecetes family. Other toothed whales in this group include dolphins we frequently see in Dana Point, the Dolphin and Whale Watching Capital of the World®. They include bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, Pacific white-sided dolphins, and larger whales such as pilot whales and false killer whales – all of which are part of the dolphin family of whales too. We get it; this concept can be slightly confusing. All dolphins are whales, but not all whales fall into the classification of dolphins. Orcas are the most masterful and powerful dolphin species and reign supreme on the list of all ocean cetaceans, including the great rorqual whales.

Are killer whales dolphins too?

Many people hear the word killer whale and don’t realize that this is the common name for orca. That is right! As simple as it sounds, they are the same. When asking about ‘are orcas dolphins,’ it is also critical to discuss where these massive dolphins reside as their surroundings create different behaviors in these animals. In the Northern Hemisphere, there are three ecotypes of killer whales. They are known as Residents, Transients or Bigg’s, and Offshore killer whales. There is also a rarely seen population of orcas known as Eastern Tropical Pacific killer whales.

Two killer whales approach passengers on Capt. Dave's catamaran

Meet the various types below:

Are killer whales, dolphins living in every ocean?

The classification of the various ecotypes we see in the Northern Hemisphere is defined by where they reside. The main groups are:

  • Resident Killer Whales

These killer whales are the most common of all the ecotypes. Residing on both sides of the Pacific, this ecotype munches salmon, typically in the Salish Sea. At the same time, Residents in Alaska may eat multiple fish species, including salmon and mackerel, halibut, and cod. Are orcas dolphins who eat fish exclusively in this region? Yes, they almost exclusively feed on fish, and outside of Alaska, salmon is always the preferred catch of the day. Sadly, commercial fishing in this region depletes their naturally occurring food source. Salish salmon numbers show a declining trend, putting orcas at risk for decline in this area.

In a recent report by the Environmental Protection Agency (or EPA) “Salish Sea Chinook salmon populations are down 60% since the Pacific Salmon Commission began tracking salmon abundance in 1984. Between 2000 and 2018, the total number of Chinook returning to the Salish Sea has shown a relatively stable trend.” *

Are orcas dolphins who stay together within the Resident pod?

They are! Residents live in family groups within larger communities broken into pods by matrilines. Their connections run deep, and their offspring live with their mothers for their entire lives. A unique characteristic of Resident orcas is they are genetically and acoustically distinct, each having unique traits specific to their pod members.

Are orcas dolphins who eat more than just fish?

Yes. Some groups of killer whales hunt more prominent marine species. Let’s dive in below:

  • Transient or Bigg’s Killer Whales

Renamed Bigg’s after pioneer killer whale researcher Dr. Biggs, these animals are considered the most ferocious and live up to their common name, killer whale. In some parts of the world, orca translates to “devilfish,” “lord of the sea,” and “blackfish.” Transients are marine mammal-eating orcas who consume their marine mammal prey of harbor seals, Steller sea lions, harbor, and Dall’s porpoise. They will also attack smaller whales. They are known for traveling within smaller groups and frequently cover home ranges within British Columbia up and down the Southern California coast to the Arctic Circle. Transient orcas are killer whale dolphins who form special bonds with their family members and relatives, and some offspring will stay with their mothers for life. Since these animals can be highly aggressive when hunting, working in unison with their family is essential to their survival. It is common for Bigg’s killer whales to create coordinated attacks on their prey. Their techniques are intense and will forcefully pursue an animal by knocking it into the air, bluntly striking it with its tail, and forcing it underwater until it drowns.

  • Offshore Killer Whales

Also carnivores, these animals are filled with prowess and are rarely encountered by humans. Typically residing over the continental shelf far from the land makes them one of the most difficult to sight, making it difficult ultimately for scientists to learn more about their behaviors. Offshore orcas are presumed to feed primarily on fish and have been documented feeding on sharks. When the chance to see one does arrive, these whales can be acrobatic and frequently seen nearer to the surface. Offshores are considered the smallest of the three North Pacific ecotypes but closer in behavior to Resident pods more than Bigg’s orcas.

  • Eastern Tropical Pacific Killer Whales

Commonly referred to as “ETP’s,” this rarely observed population of orca is more often found off the coasts of Mexico and Central America. Rarely do we see these animals near Orange County. Sightings of these whales are extraordinary and few recorded observations of these animals have ever been made, scientists are still not entirely sure of everything they feed on. ETP’s have been observed preying on dolphins though. Having the opportunity to see and photograph one is exhilarating!

As we read above, orca’s strength is extraordinary. Both Offshore and Bigg’s killer whales are carnivores. When killer whales are in town, dolphins become sight unseen. Being equipped with a “spidey sense” lets smaller mammals know the killers are on their way.

What is orca dolphins’ most prominent threat?

Humankind continues to be a significant threat orcas face today. The capture of killer whales for use in large aquatic marine mammal amusement parks is a real danger orcas tragically undergo. Underwater noise pollution is also one of the biggest threats these animals face today.

According to the Endangered Species Coalition:

“Noise pollution from vessels can prevent Southern Resident orcas from using echolocation to catch prey. Anthropogenic chemical pollutants like PCBs bioaccumulate in the tissues of orca which cause endocrine and immune system disruption when they starve. These two factors are linked to the primary reason for their decline- which is lack of food. Unfortunately, today, two-thirds of orca pregnancies fail due to nutritional stress”*

Are orcas dolphins who can sleep while swimming?

Little is known about how orcas sleep, but like all species of cetaceans, we know they require oxygen to breathe. When it comes time to sleep, killer whales are the same as all Odontocetes. They shut down one half of the brain while the other stays awake. Half of the brain rests while the other half remains alert to control their breathing, meaning they sleep with one eye open. Now that is ‘whaley’ smart if you ask us!

Killer whales are orca, dolphins who are recognized in art and culture all over the world.

Orcas are often characterized in various aspects of art and human culture. Legends, myths, and religious stories told through the centuries include them. Their dominant dorsal fins are their signature. These unmistakable black and white whales are orcas, dolphins making a splash in the history of the world’s seas for eons. The presence of whales is meaningful in mythology, folklore, historical and modern-day stories in both written and verbal retelling of encounters with species of all types of whales. Killer whales are no exception. Like us, killer whales show empathy for one another. They have a culture in their societies. Interestingly, they seem to have a relationship or understanding with him as too. The power of whales is conveyed in art and illustrated with their striking dominant black and white camouflage coloring in cultural communities all over the world. Making them one of the most recognizable whales in the world is one reason passengers aboard our safari trips ask “why are orcas dolphins”?

Close up of an orca (killer whale)

What scientific aspects of killer whales classify orcas as dolphins?

What makes them dolphins are the presence of sharp teeth instead of baleen, having only one blowhole (not two like baleen whales), and their size. While they are the largest dolphin in the family Delphinidae, they pale in comparison to the long lengths of Rorqual whales. Measuring approximately 32 feet is BIG when you are a dolphin, but still considered on the small side compared to a blue whale’s record-breaking 100-foot measurement! Since killers whales are dolphins, are their teeth sharp? Yes, they are! Their razor-sharp set of 40 to 56 interlocking conical-shaped teeth – each measuring approximately- is designed for ripping and tearing the flesh of sharks, whales, and other fish like salmon.

Are orcas dolphins who chew their food?

Surprising to most passengers, their teeth do not chew prey. Like all dolphins, teeth are for grasping prey so killer whales can swallow their food in chunks or even entirely whole. Biggs and Offshores are equipped with teeth that will tear through the most rigid flesh. Having strong teeth is essential for these whales with a diet consisting of sharks and sea lions on the menu. Killer whales are best known for creating coordinated attacks on prey. Scientists have witnessed them beaching themselves – where they forcefully propel themselves onto the land – to scare sea lions into the water where their family members secretly lurk below the water’s surface, waiting for a feast. In cold icy waters, they will create a giant wave under cold icy waters using their powerful fluke’s massive size and sheer force to throw their prey off an ice float with a self-designed wave. Through this hunting process, they teach these techniques to their young.

As sneaky as killer whale dolphins are to the sea lions with their gnashing teeth, they have also been made infamous through history books and stories from worldwide. Their unmistakable coloring being one of their many defining characteristics paints them in pictures from east to west and north to south. Despite their aggressive names, there is no recorded account of killer whales attacking humans or even swimming dogs in the wild; however, they most certainly plan coordinated attacks on their prey.

Orca is a living legend. 

Are orcas dolphins depicted in art as friends or foe?

While not always specific to orca, stories paint the picture of connections from the sea to the land. In Vietnam, whales of all types, including killer whales, are considered sacred creatures and bring luck, safety, and prosperity. Chinese culture shares that “Yu-kiang,” a giant whale, ruled the ocean. A young tribal man named Paikea in New Zealand rode upon the back of a humpback whale, saving him from the sea, bringing him back to land. Are orcas dolphins who have a connection to people? Yes, absolutely! While not all stories are not specific to killer whales, they illustrate the relationship the sea’s creatures have to humans within stories. The classic tale of Moby Dick’s ships hunted by sperm whales once harpooned by man is no exception. The Christian story of Jonah and the whale reminds us of Jonah, a man who chose not to heed God’s warning and was said to be swallowed up inside the belly of the whale. Jonah prayed and repented for his disobedience to God inside the whale. After three days of listening to Jonah’s prayer, God Commanded the whale to vomit, causing the whale to release Jonah from its stomach. Are orcas dolphins who can teach us lessons? Yes, of course. We can always learn from the creatures of the sea. Another tale of a hungry whale in East African religious stories shares how God teaches king Sulemani a lesson about significant loss and world hunger through the experience of losing crops at the expense of a great whale. The Inuit people of the Arctic share a story of a stranded whale in the forest and the necessary strength to bring the animal back to sea.

Are orcas dolphins who have attacked people?

One of the most famous tales questioning if orcas are killer whales comes from the Tinglit people of northern Canada and tells the tale of a young man named Natsilane who carved a killer whale from cedarwood. Singing his most meaningful spirit song, Natsilane set the caving of Orca into the ocean where his brothers were hunting. Soon after, the killer whale came to life, and Natsilane ordered it to attack and kill his brothers, which it did without hesitation. When the killer whale returned to Natsilane, he called it never to kill again and that if it found someone stranded in the water, the whale was to help save that person and bring them back to land.

Are orcas dolphins who can also swim fast?

Yes – they are the fastest! Orcas can reach 32 miles per hour, making them the fastest toothed whales swiftly swimming the open seas. Their speed defines them and is used to coordinate attacks on prey. After all, killer whales are dolphins, and they love to play too! They showcase their incredible acrobatic maneuvers using their magnificent fluke to propel their entire massive body out of the water. This is one of the qualities that make killer whales so attractive to amusement park owners.

“Captivity is always captivity, no matter how gentle the jailer.”

― John Hargrove, Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish

Sadly, the threat of being captured from the open sea where orcas belong and being ripped away from tightly knit communities and families who stay together for life is an actual reality for killer whales. Today’s world is home to 57 orcas in captivity. Humanity captures these magnificent creatures to turn a profit for human enjoyment. It is human nature to be inquisitive, and it is natural to want to see an animal of this magnitude up close as they are tremendously more powerful than ourselves. Watching them perform awe-inspiring tricks and splashing families and children by performing tricks in water is thought to be the only way to experience these precious animals. We take this to heart at Captain Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari. We are lucky to call our surrounding waters our home and are ecstatic when we have the opportunity to see marine mammals of all types visit us by their own accord – especially the rare sightings of killer whales.

How many orcas are living in the world today?

From the Arabian Sea to the Gulf of Mexico, from the coastal waters of Japan to the Atlantic Ocean, and from the Arctic waters to Antarctica, there are approximately 50,000 living killer whales in the world today. Statistics show that the average life expectancy of orcas in the wild is approximately 30 years for males and close to 50 years for females. One resident female orca named “Granny”, topped the history charts with a record-breaking lifespan of 100+ years old! In 2016, “Granny” passed away as the matriarch of J-Pod.

While sightings of these magnificent mammals are considered rare, it does happen! The only way to try to see a whale, or dolphin, in this case, is to book your trip today and get out there. You never know… you may be lucky enough to see one!

Until then,

Jess Wright
First Mate and Marine Naturalist
Capt. Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari

SOURCES
https://www.epa.gov/salish-sea/chinook-salmon
https://www.endangered.org/campaigns/southern-resident-orcas/
https://research.ocean.org/project/killer-whale-mating-systems

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