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Is an Orca a Whale or a Dolphin? (Explained)

Ever wonder, is an orca a whale or a dolphin? Regardless of being called killer whales, orcas are members family Delphinidae and are more closely related to dolphins than whales. They’re the sole species in this category, but their nearest family members are dolphin species from around South East Asia & Australia like the Irrawaddy dolphin. Thus, orcas are dolphins not whales. But why are orcas called ‘Killer whales’ if they are dolphins? Because dolphins and whales are closely related.

Orcas were given the name ‘killer of the whale’ by ancient whalers, and the name changed to ‘killer whale’ over time. The Latin name for orcas or killer whale is Orcinus orca, it also reflects this perception of orcas feeding on huge whales. Orcinus means ‘of the realm of the dead,’ and orca alludes to a kind of whale.

Is an orca a whale or a dolphin?

So first let’s get a couple things straight. Both whales and dolphins are known as cetaceans, which is divided into two groups; baleen whales and toothed whales. All dolphins are considered whales, but not all whales are considered dolphins.

Orcas, or killer whales, are considered “toothed whales” along with about 75 other species. However, as we mentioned above, they are more closely related to oceanic dolphins than whales.

What does an orca look like?

close-up of an orca | depositphotos.com

Orcas have an extraordinary appearance, they are known for their long dorsal fin and highly contrasting black-and-white shading. Behind the dorsal, a grey patch exists. This grey patch is known as a “saddle”.

An orca’s body is tube-shaped and decreases at the two closures to frame a streamlined shape. They are made for efficiently hunting and killing their prey. Rather than biting their prey, they take one major swallow. These brilliant animals can swallow seals and sea lions entirely! Larger prey is torn into pieces before being eaten.

According to National Geographic, orcas are one of the most abundant classes of the dolphin group. The average weight of orcas is about 6 tons (5,443 kilograms) and height varies from 23 to 32 feet (7 to 9.7 meters). The largest orcas whale recorded till now was 32 feet (9.8 m) long.

Types of Orcas

There is more than one kind of orca. For a long time, orcas were considered one species. However, now several species of orcas have been identified (or if nothing else, subspecies, specialists are still figuring this out).

As specialists become more familiar with orcas, they have proposed categorizing these animals into various species or subspecies dependent on hereditary qualities, diet, size, vocalizations, geography, and physical appearance.

Millions of years ago, different groups began eating various things to abstain from competing for the same food. Presently these groups are different, notwithstanding their distinctive appearance and cultures. In the Southern Hemisphere, the proposed species include those alluded to as

  1. Type A (Antarctic)
  2. Large Type B (pack ice killer whale)
  3. Small Type B (Gerlache killer whale)
  4. Type C (Ross Sea killer whale)
  5. Type D (Sub-antarctic killer whale)

In the Northern Hemisphere, the proposed species include inhabitant killer whales, offshore killer whales, and Type 1 and 2 Eastern North Atlantic killer whales, and Bigg’s (transient) killer whales.

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Determining the species of killer whales is important, not only in gaining information about the whales but in protecting them. It is difficult to determine the population of killer whales without even knowing how many species there are.

Orcas in Captivity 

Captive killer whales are live Orcas that are held in imprisonment by humans, frequently for reproducing or execution purposes.

The act of catching and showcasing these whales in exhibitions started in the 1960s, soon becoming popular attractions at public aquariums and aquatic amusement parks because of their striking appearance, trainability, intelligence, playfulness, and sheer size. As of record on August 2019, there were 60 orcas in captivity around the world, 33 of which are captive-born.

After a recent documentary, attention was brought to the conditions for orcas in captivity and at Seaworld. From what I understand there are still orcas at Seaworld and they have a new and rebranded orca experience.

There are currently around 60 orcas still in captivity worldwide, with about 33 of those being born in captivity.

Are Orcas Endangered?

A few cetaceans are currently confronting a questionable future because their populations have declined to the point that there are just a few of them left on the planet. Killer whales are not in the list of endangered species, but they are vulnerable against various dangers of natural and anthropogenic origin.

The Red List of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) classifies Killer whales in the “Data Deficient” group (DD), however actually some particular populations are now in threat. The orcas that live off the U.S. Pacific coastline, the Southern Resident Orca, are critically endangered.

On the off possibility that we do not make a move very quickly, researchers foresee that this population will be wiped out.

More about orcas

Orcas are apex predators, which means they are at the top of the food chain. Killer whales are some of the largest and most dominant creatures in the sea, and no other predator can challenge them.

Herding fish before shocking them with tail strikes is one of numerous manners by which these predators chase their prey. As exceptionally smart predators, orcas also work together in coordinated attacks to make waves that can thump prey off drifting ice into the water. Orcas have even learned the dangerous trick of beaching themselves to catch ocean lions in Patagonia before wriggling go into the water.

A group of orcas is known as a pod. A pod of orcas generally comprises of a developed female, her grown-up offspring, and her little daughters’ offspring. Female orcas beyond breeding age will guide and care about young individuals of the pod.In the sea orcas, it depends on utilizing clicks and whistles to trade data with the rest of the pod.

At the surface, they are known to use body language to convey, including breaching, slapping their flippers or tail, and “spyhopping”.

Orcas can rest on one side of their brain at times. This permits the side that is conscious to control breathing and forestalls drowning, while the opposite side sleeps. Because of their huge size and immense force, orcas are quick swimmers and have been recorded at a speeds of up to 33 mph.

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Interesting facts about orcas

Here are a few fun facts about orcas!

  1. Orcas typically live the final third of their lives after they stop reproducing.
  2. They are one of the only known non-human creature to have developed their own culture.
  3. Orcas are found in all oceans.
  4. Most male orcas never leave their mothers.
  5. An orca’s life span shortens in pools and captivity.
  6. Orcas are one of just three animal species on the planet to experience menopause.
  7. Killer whales have around 45 teeth (each around 10 cm long)
  8. They spend a huge amount of their energy searching for food.
  9. From what studies have shown, orcas have no sense of smell.
  10. The average orcas lifespan in the wild is about 50 to 80 years.


To wrap it up, when it comes to the question “is an orca a whale or a dolphin? ” we know that orcas are considered toothed whales yet are more closely related to dolphins than they are most whales.

So technically an orca isn’t a whale or a dolphin, they are in a class of their own. However they are related to both whales and dolphins and have characteristics of both.

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