Orca, or Killer Whale, Orcinus orca

Max. Length: males – up to 30 feet; females – up to 26 feet (8 feet at birth)
Max. Weight: males – up to 8 tons; females – up to 5 tons

Just to give you an idea about how big…

orca size compared to a human being

Although orcas are also referred to as “killer whales”, there is no record of a wild orca ever having killed or hurt a human being. Experts are divided as to whether the incidents involving captive orca whales have been accidents or deliberate attempts to cause harm.

Largest of the dolphin family, orcas inhabit every ocean on this planet. The marine inland waters of British Columbia and Washington State have approximately 300 orcas that are organized into about thirty pods or social groups. The pods vary in size from five to fifty animals, with the average pod having between five and twenty animals. Scientists use an alphanumeric system to distinguish between pods and identify individual animals.

Three distinct communities of orcas have been observed in the Salish Sea since the early 1970s. Each community has its own dialect, or unique vocalizations. The southern resident community is comprised of J-, K-, and L-pods, currently totaling 89 individuals. Their 200-mile range extends from Olympia, Washington, to Campbell River, British Columbia. Summer sightings are concentrated in an area extending from the Straits of
Juan de Fuca to the San Juan Islands and Gulf Islands. They have also been sighted along the outer coastal areas of Washington State and Vancouver Island. The northern resident community consists of 16 pods totaling approximately 225 animals. Population surveys are more difficult to obtain for the northern pods as the range extends from Campbell River, British Columbia, up to Alaskan waters. The third community is comprised of 15 smaller pods known as transients. These groups have a less defined range and observers have recorded sightings from Alaska to Oregon. In recent years researchers have identified another group known as the “off-shores.” Very little is known about this population, although observations of the same individuals have been made from Canada to California.

Orca pods have a complex social structure. Resident pods may travel together for days or weeks, but there has never been a recorded incident of an individual changing pods. The pod is divided into maternally centered subgroups consisting of mothers, calves, and siblings. These maternal subgroups have a strong social bond and individuals remain with their maternal elders for life. Through their long-term study of the northern and southern resident, Canadian and American researchers have compiled one of the most extensive studies of any wild animal population in the world.


  • most commonly seen during late spring through early fall in this area
  • black on upper body with distinctive white or gray “saddle patch” marking behind dorsal fin, white oval eye patch, white undersides with elliptical patterning that extends from the lower jaw to flukes and onto flanks
  • adult females have a 3- to 4-foot crescent shaped dorsal fin; adult males have up to a 5-foot tall, triangular dorsal fin with the height being more than the width of the base
  • resident population is seen in groups called pods, traveling, foraging, playing, or in sleep-rest behavior; transient orcas are less commonly seen in the marine waters of Washington State
  • much larger in size than Dall’s porpoises and harbor porpoises
how to identify an orca whale

Click here to download (pdf)n the Marine Mammals of the Salish Sea by the Whale Museum