The killer whale (Orcinus orca), also referred to as the orca whale or orca, and less commonly as the blackfish or grampus, is a toothed whale belonging to the oceanic dolphin family, of which it is the largest member. Killer whales are found in all oceans, from Arctic and Antarctic regions to tropical seas. Killer whales have a diverse diet, although individual populations often specialize in particular types of prey. Some feed exclusively on fish, while others hunt marine mammals like pinnipeds, and even large whales. They have been known to attack baleen whale calves. Killer whales are regarded as apex predators, lacking natural predators.
The three to five types of killer whales may be distinct enough to be considered different races, subspecies, or possibly even species. The IUCN reported in 2008, “The taxonomy of this genus is clearly in need of review, and it is likely that O. orca will be split into a number of different species or at least subspecies over the next few years.” Although large variation in the ecological distinctiveness of different killer whale groups complicate simple differentiation into types, research off the west coast of Canada and the United States in the 1970s and 1980s identified the following three types:
- Resident: These are the most commonly sighted of the three populations in the coastal waters of the northeast Pacific. Residents’ diets consist primarily of fish and sometimes squid, and they live in complex and cohesive family groups called pods. Female residents characteristically have rounded dorsal fin tips that terminate in a sharp corner. They visit the same areas consistently. British Columbia and Washington resident populations are amongst the most intensively studied marine mammals. Researchers have identified and named over 300 killer whales over the past 30 years.
- Transient: The diets of these whales consist almost exclusively of marine mammals. Transients generally travel in small groups, usually of two to six animals, and have less persistent family bonds than residents. Transients vocalize in less variable and less complex dialects. Female transients are characterized by more triangular and pointed dorsal fins than those of residents. The gray or white area around the dorsal fin, known as the “saddle patch”, often contains some black colouring in residents. However, the saddle patches of transients are solid and uniformly gray. Transients roam widely along the coast; some individuals have been sighted in both southern Alaska and California. Transients are also referred to as Bigg’s killer whale in honor of Michael Bigg. The term has become increasingly common and may eventually replace the transient label.
- Offshore: A third population of killer whales in the northeast Pacific was discovered in 1988, when a humpback whale researcher observed them in open water. As their name suggests, they travel far from shore and feed primarily on schooling fish. However, because they have large, scarred and nicked dorsal fins resembling those of mammal-hunting transients, it may be that they also eat mammals and sharks. They have mostly been encountered off the west coast of Vancouver Island and near Haida Gwaii. Offshores typically congregate in groups of 20–75, with occasional sightings of larger groups of up to 200. Currently, little is known about their habits, but they are genetically distinct from residents and transients. Offshores appear to be smaller than the others, and females are characterized by dorsal fin tips that are continuously rounded.