Why Are Orcas Called Killer Whales?

why are orcas called killer whales

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Undoubtedly some of the most fascinating animals in our oceans are orcas, also commonly known as killer whales.

They are top marine predators that are incredibly intelligent and found in every ocean across the globe.

With no natural predators, these dolphin members roam the oceans in search of prey, big or small, it’s on the menu.

Today, we’re going to dive deep into why are orcas called killer whales and when they got this more sinister name.

Keep reading to learn all there is about the orca’s alternative name, where they got it from, and if it’s a deserving one.

Why Are Orcas Called Killer Whales?

Orcas were given the name “killer whale” after ancient sailors witnessed pods of orca hunting and preying on large whale species.

The name in its very essence means killing of whales, which fits the orca perfectly as they’re known to prey on many whale species.

why are orcas called killer whales
Image by J. Maughn

Minke whales, humpback whales, and even the enormous blue whale have all fallen victim to orcas, so the name is rather fitting.

It can be quite confusing as people sometimes believe orcas are whales, but they are actually part of the dolphin family.

Are Orcas And Killer Whales The Same Animal?

Orcas and killer whales are the same animals, it’s just they have interchangeable names which is why it’s easy to become confused.

“Killer whale” is just another word for Orca, but depending on who you are speaking to, they may use either one whilst referring to the same animal.

These top ocean predators may even go by “wolves of the sea”, another nickname given to them because of their pack mentality.

Orcas can live in pods of up to 100 individuals strong, and they work as a team to take down all types of prey.

When Did Orcas Start Being Called Killer Whales?

It’s widely believed that orcas got this name sometime in the 18th century when Spanish sailors dubbed them “whale killers” which transition into “killer whales”.

Whilst the exact origin of the name is unclear, the first reference to the name “killer whale” appears to be from a Captain Cook expedition in the late 18th century.

The crew reportedly referred to the animals as “whale killers” due to observing large pods of orca take down some enormous whales, but over time the name evolved to “killer whales”.

The name seems to have stuck well until the modern day, with many people still referring to orcas as killer whales.

Is Killer Whales A Deserving Name For Orcas?

Given that orcas really do kill whales, I do believe it’s a rather deserving name as it’s accurate of the predator’s behavior of orcas.

Orcas are apex predators that not only kill whales but seals, sea lions, dolphins, stingrays, and many other marine animals.

They’re not particularly fussy eaters and will take just about anything they can get their teeth on, they’ve even been known to eat moose from time to time.

However, it’s important to note that the term killer whale can be somewhat misleading, with some people believing orcas are whales because of this name.

Orcas are the largest member of the dolphin family and are not whales at all, so in that regards the name may not be so fitting.

The name killer whale also sounds incredibly menacing and can send a shiver up your spine.

Despite the menacing name and appearance, orcas have never killed a human in the wild and are relatively safe to be around for humans.

If someone who refers to orcas as killer whales and then sees one in the wild, they may be filled with panic due to the “killer” part of the name.

But there’s really no need to panic, and so long as these majestic animals are treated with respect there’s not much to worry about when encountering an orca.

Do Killer Whales Deserve Their Reputation?

Orcas or killer whales have a reputation for being apex predators and being highly skilled hunters which I believe is deserved.

They’re INCREDIBLE at hunting and use a variety of fascinating techniques to take down all types of prey, small to large.

Whilst they have a right to be feared in marine ecosystems due to their predatory status, it’s important to note that they shouldn’t be feared by humans.

These super-intelligent animals are aware that we too are intelligent and not part of their diet, so they are no threat to humans.

why are orcas called killer whales
Image by Robin Gwen Agarwal

It’s easy to become fearful of killer whales because of their reputation, but unlike other predators like lions or polar bears, orcas don’t hunt humans.

They deserve to be feared by sea lions, sharks, and whales, but humans should not fear killer whales, but instead respect and protect them.

Orcas play a critical role in marine ecosystems by helping to regulate the population of the animals they feed on.

But they are not out to harm humans, so they should not be feared.

Easier said than done… I know!

Wrapping Up?

Orcas are called “killer whales” as ancient sailors witnessed pods of these animals taking down large prey, so dubbed them “whale killers.”

Over time, the name evolved into killer whales which is a fitting name for them as they do indeed kill whales.

Whilst killer whale accurately reflects the orca’s reputation as an apex predator, it doesn’t accurately reflect their threat to humans.

Just because they’re called killer whales does not mean that humans should fear them, they’re incredibly intelligent animals and are more curious toward humans than hostile.

The fact that no human has ever died at the hands of a wild orca reflects that, so if you are ever lucky enough to come across an orca in the wild, enjoy the magical experience.

It’s certainly one that I hope in my lifetime I get to experience, so try to stay calm and soak it in.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post and I’ll see you in the next one!