killer whale

Killer whale

Latin name: Orcinus orca
Global Distribution: Globally one of the most widespread cetaceans.
UK Distribution: Shetland, Orkney and west coast Scotland.
Size: Up to 9.8m long and 10 tonnes in weight.
Diet: fish, cephalopods, mammals, sea birds and sea turtles
Habitat: Ranging from warm tropical waters to the freezing polar regions. Killer whales can survive in most water temperatures.

The killer whale, orca or blackfish, as it is variously known, is social, intelligent, powerful and a cunning predator. These whales are more closely related to dolphins than other whales with their closest relative being the Snubfin dolphin. Growing to up to 9.8m long and 10 tonnes, these massive mammals are powerful swimmers and can be seen leaping from the water. Much like their dolphin cousins, the Orcas are highly social and vocal, travelling in groups of 2 – 50. It has been observed that adult killer whales teach younger ones the skills of hunting, demonstrating their keen intelligence.

These whales earned their name from fishermen for being the apex predator in most regions they inhabitant. Despite the name, killer whales are not considered a threat to humans, with no reports of attacks in the wild. Due to their intelligence and impressive size there is a history of killer whales being taken into captivity throughout the world. In the UK killer whales are most commonly seen north and west of Scotland in every month of the year but the peak sightings occur in June and July in Shetland’s coastal waters. Further research is required to determine the population strength of killer whales in the waters around Scotland. However, sightings have reduced dramatically in Clyde waters in the last few decades. Killer whales are protected under UK and EU law.

Fun facts

  • They are the only known predator of great white sharks
  • Different populations alter their behaviour depending on the prey they hunt. When targeting other dolphins and whales, they cease their vocal signals to avoid detection.
  • They can mimic the sounds of other species, including dolphins and humans.