Have you ever seen Free Willy? How about Free Willy 2? No, well you must’ve seen Free Willy 3, right? Well, if you have or haven’t, the whale depicted in those movies is an orca. Orcas, commonly referred to as killer whales, are one of the most recognizable marine mammals. With their sleek trademark black and white exteriors, these animals can be spotted and identified easily. Weighing up to 12,000 lbs and reaching average lengths of 20-26ft, killer whales are, ironically, the largest of the dolphin species. You can find killer whales practically anywhere, from cold, crisp waters of the arctic up to tropical shores near the equator – thus making orcas one of the most dispersed groups of mammals on the planet.
There are also a lot of misconceptions about killer whales, too, especially because of their name. A few common questions we often hear people ask are: Are killer whales dangerous? Are killer whales friendly? Why are killer whales called killer whales? And so on. These are definitely good questions, and to some, the answers may seem a little surprising.
To answer the first question, are killer whales dangerous, they actually aren’t! Or at least to humans, usually. Although you should still be cautious, there has only been one instance of a killer whale attacking a person in the wild –with no instances of a wild orca killing a human. However, this isn’t quite the same for orcas in captivity. Historically, there have been a handful of attacks from orcas at zoos or aquariums – with a few of these attacks tragically resulting in the deaths of their trainers. In captivity, when orcas attack, it’s usually believed to be because they feel threatened or are under emotional distress. Some researchers believe this behavior may stem from the idea that they feel isolated, since they are usually with their pod, or family, in the wild.
Again, though, this shouldn’t be a fear when it comes to orcas in the wild. For some unapparent reason (or group of reasons), orcas tend to disregard humans – which makes you wonder, why are killer whales “friendly”? Common theories include 1.) that we aren’t tasty enough for their complex palate, and 2.) we don’t resemble their other prey. Others believe that there is sort of an unwritten code for orcas, stating that they shouldn’t kill humans. Although this may seem far-fetched, killer whales are actually very intelligent, making this seem like a feasible possibility.
Now, the next big question: why are killer whales called killer whales. Well, there are a couple of reasons why that might be so. One common theory is that whalers used to call them “killers of whales,” but over time, the phrase was somehow morphed into “killer whales.” The other reason is because of their proclivity to hunt and kill most large marine animals – practically anything in their way. Again, being the largest dolphin species, they’re identified as apex predators or top dogs on the food chain. They feast on a variety of marine life, including fish, penguins, seals, sea lions, and yes, even whales (hint: the name). They have also been known to kill and eat other dolphin species, but this isn’t as common since dolphins are comparingly fast and swift.
Although killer whales aren’t endangered, there are still a variety of factors that are causing their populations to decline. Some of the biggest factors include habitat loss and lack of food – without adequate amounts of food, killer whales don’t have the necessary fuel to survive and reproduce. Pollution is also another big factor, for contaminants in the ocean such as oil are toxic to these animals, as well as all sea life. The more aware we are of our environment, and the more proactive we are in protecting our sea life, the better equipped we will be in helping save our whales.
If you’d like to see killer whales up close and personal, visit Harbor Breeze. Our whale watching tours in Long Beach and Los Angeles give you the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see whales, dolphins, and other beautiful marine creatures. Guided by naturalists from the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, our tours are informative and exciting! Visit our website to book a tour today!