Animal Facts: Orca

  • Published Aug 12, 2021
  • Updated Aug 12, 2022
  • 319 words
  • 2 minutes
As the largest member of the dolphin family, the Orca can weigh more than 16000 pounds. (Photo: Karac Lindsay/Can Geo Photo Club)
Expand Image

The orca, or killer whale, is a highly recognizable species that is known for its iconic black and white colouring. 

Fast Facts

Common name: Orca or killer whale

Scientific nameOrcinus orca

Kwakʼwala name: maxinuxw

Type: Mammal

Diet: Carnivore

Group name: Pod

Average weight: 7 tonnes to 9 tonnes

Average length: 7 meters to 9 meters

COSEWIC Status: No status

Did you know?

The orca is not actually a whale, it is the largest member of the dolphin family.

Physical characteristics and behaviour

Orcas have a distinctive black and white colouring and long, rounded bodies. In full grown males, the dorsal fin sticks straight up, usually to a height of 1.8 metres. In females and young whales, the dorsal fin is curved and usually less than one metre high. Behind the dorsal fin is a grey area called a saddle patch. The shape of the dorsal fin and saddle patch, as well as the marks and scars on them are unique to each orca.

Orcas live in groups, called pods, of two to 30 individuals. Each pod communicates using its own unique sounds that its members can identify from a distance. Orcas of both sexes often remain with their parents for life.

To the Kwakwaka’wakw people of parts of Vancouver Island, Queen Charlotte Strait, Johnstone Strait and the central B.C. coast, when fishermen die, their souls turn into orcas (and vice versa). As such, Kwakwaka’wakw fishermen must follow special rituals when harvesting an orca to ensure its spirit can be reborn.


Orcas are carnivores, and eat a variety of prey from marine mammals to fish. They have also been known to eat seabirds and turtles. 

Habitat and distribution

Orcas are found in all three of Canada’s oceans, but are most common off the southern coast of British Columbia. They are becoming increasingly common in the Atlantic and Arctic oceans due to warming water temperatures caused by climate change.


Are you passionate about Canadian geography?

You can support Canadian Geographic in 3 ways:

Related Content


Death of a whale

When one of the few remaining females of reproductive age in the southern resident population of North Pacific killer whales was found dead near Comox B.C. in 2014, an investigation was launched. The results highlight the challenges of protecting our most iconic marine mammals.

  • 2341 words
  • 10 minutes


Pacific killer whales are dying — new research shows why

In the 1990s, an abrupt decline in the fish-eating southern resident population dropped to 75 whales from 98

  • 852 words
  • 4 minutes


Punctuation’s mark: Can we save the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale?

After a series of mass deaths in recent years, what can we do?

  • 4110 words
  • 17 minutes


Whales in the news! Are icebreakers ruining narwhals’ summer getaway?

Are icebreakers ruining narwhals’ summer getaway? Plus, Montreal’s whale-ward minkes, Canada’s first North Atlantic right whale visit of the year, a new K pod baby, and humpback and orca continue to clash

  • 1103 words
  • 5 minutes