Killer Reputation
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A Killer Reputation

They are found in every ocean of the world. Females can grow to 28 feet in length and can weigh up to 16,000 lbs. Males are considerably larger, reaching up to 32 feet and 22,000 lbs. They can dive as deep as 1,500 feet and can swim over 30 Two killer whales "playing" with their food, off the coast of Patagonia, Argentina. mph. They are strict carnivores and wonderfully adapted to find, catch and eat a wide variety of marine animals. Some feed primarily on fish and seldom roam beyond a relatively small home range. Others, however, must travel greater distances searching for their preferred prey...whales, dolphins and other marine mammals.

For thousands of years this magnificent creature has held a special place in the hearts, minds, customs and mythology of many human cultures. Over the centuries it has been known by many names. Almost all, however, are just some variation of its most widely known identity of "killer whale." Today this common name continues to be the one most often used and accepted by marine mammal professionals and lay people alike. Recently, however, some folks, searching for a more politically correct title perhaps, have suggested that killer whale is inaccurate and in some way demeaning to this incredible animal. They prefer (and in some cases insist on) the title of "orca."

It may be interesting to note that the term orca is derived from the8,000 year old stone petroglyph of killer whale. Wrangell, AK. species' scientific name Orcinus orca. Orca is Latin for "a kind of whale." With over seventy different species of cetaceans living today, this term alone might seem rather vague for such a unique animal. The genus, Orcinus, translates to "belonging to the realms of the dead" or "bringer of death." So it appears that even the scientific title for this species is really just a Latin translation of killer whale.

How then did this highly popular animal attain its infamous name and reputation in the first place? Some people have suggested that ‘killer whale’ is simply a mis-translation from earlier Spanish sailor’s descriptions of the animals as 'whale killers' because they were often seen hunting in groups and slaughtering much larger whales for food. This hypothesis may be partially true and certainly applicable in some geographic areas, but it does not explain why so many ancient people and cultures all over the world provide similarly descriptive names for this animal. These names are all based upon this species' unique and awesome power and ability to kill (and sometimes not even eat) not only whales much larger than itself, but just about any species of marine mammal it desires, including, seals, sea lions, walruses, dolphins and porpoises. Throughout Paper rubbing from 8,000 year old petroglyph of killer whale. Wrangell, AK. history the power, skill and intensity of this animal's hunting and killing prowess has been legendary. It serves as the basis not only for its name, but also for its often mythic status and place of ultimate respect among many ancient and modern cultures. To the native Haida tribes of coastal British Columbia the animal is called skana, which translates to "killer demon; supernatural power." To the Aleut of Kodiak Island, Alaska it is polossatik, "the feared one." These are very old and honored names for an animal that is not only feared but also revered and respected.

Among western civilizations, the term killer whale has been in use for at least two thousand years; long before the sailors of Spain explored the world's oceans. One of its first published appearances is in Pliny the Elder's: Natural History. In this 1st century publication, the Roman scholar writes, "A killer whale cannot be properly depicted or described except as an enormous mass of flesh armed with savage teeth."

In more recent centuries westerners who did not understand the animal or appreciate its incredibly valuable role in the earth's oceanic ecosystems often lashed out indiscriminately against it. Only a couple of decades ago fisherman often shot them out of fear and ignorance and the U.S. military used killer whales for target practice. Today such incidents are rare, primarily due to a new understanding and respect for the species brought about by our being able to appreciate the animals close up and see them participate in mutually respectful relationships with human beings. Modern oceanariums that maintain killer whales, such as those that are members of AMMPA and IMATA, provide an up close experience for people to learn about these magnificent creatures and replace their old fears with a new found respect. Every trainer that works with these incredible animals knows that you cannot force a killer whale to do anything; you can only find ways to help make participation enjoyable. A relationship based upon mutual respect is essential and an absolute prerequisite when participating in the kind of training and water work often done in these facilities.A demonstration of the trust and bond that must exist between trainer and killer whale.

In developing these relationships and in teaching this respect to others, however, we must not ignore the full nature and importance of this species as the ocean's top predator. To truly respect an animal you must first understand and accept it for what it really is, not for what we wish it to be. This includes those aspects of its nature that some people may find frightening or disturbing. We feel that this realistic approach to education shows respect for both the animal and the student, and is totally consistent with the important educational goals and responsibilities of modern zoological institutions. It is also the reason why we feel that the title of killer whale is both respectful and appropriate for an animal that has earned its reputation as the undisputed king of ocean predators.

End of Report

bulletFor some more photos, comments and a short animated gif on this species check out our page "A Little About Killer Whale Training"


References  (and some suggested readings)

For a complete list see our Bibliography:

Bigg MA, Ellis GM, Ford JK, Balcomb KC. Killer Whales: A Study of Their Identification, Genealogy and Natural History in British Columbia and Washington State. Phantom Press & Publishers Inc., Nanaimo, B.C., 1987.

Desmond T, Laule G. Husbandry training: A gateway to enhanced socialization. International Marine Animal Trainers Association Proceedings 1987; 55-62.

Fad S. The killer whale (Orcinus orca). IMATA Soundings 1996, 21 (2): 18-32.

Gaskin DE. The Ecology of Whales and Dolphins. Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., London, 1982.

Hewlett KG, Newman MA. "Skana", the killer whale Orcinus orca at Vancouver Public Aquarium. International Zoo Yearbook 1968; 8: 209-211.

Hoyt, E. Orca: The Whale Called Killer. Camden House Publishing, Ontario, 1990.

Minasian SM, Balcomb KC, Foster L. The World's Whales. Smithsonian Books, Washington, D.C., 1984.

Pryor K. Don't Shoot the Dog. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1984.

Ramirez K. Animal Training: Successful Animal Management Through Positive Reinforcement. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, 1999.

Sweeney J, Samansky T. Elements of successful facility design: marine mammals, in Conservation of Endangered Species in Captivity: An Interdisciplinary Approach, Gibbons EF, Durrant B, and Demarest J, Eds.. State University of New York Press, New York. 1995. 465-477.


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Revised: August 27, 2011.