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Why are Orcas Called Killer Whales? Here's the Surprising Answer

Why are Orcas Called Killer Whales?
Killer whales are marine creatures primarily known for their hunting skills. They are found in all the oceans around the world. A few interesting facts on why orcas are called killer whales, are presented here.
Shashank Nakate
Last Updated: Aug 12, 2017
Orcas and Humans
Orcas are efficient hunters; however, they hardly ever attack humans. In fact, there are many orcas which have been trained to perform at aquatic theme parks. Their intelligence, receptive nature, and appearance, have made them suitable creatures for performing in theme parks.
Orcas are amongst the world's most feared predators. These marine creatures belong to the Delphinidae family, which comprises different kinds of oceanic dolphins. In fact, the orca is the biggest member of this group. Some of the others include the Pygmy Killer Whale, False Killer Whale, and the Melon-headed Whale.

Killer whales can survive in the cold polar regions of Antarctica and the Arctic Circle, as well as the warm waters of the equatorial regions. Orcas are not just fierce hunters, but also intelligent creatures. This characteristic gets reflected in the way they employ creativity while hunting.
Reasons Why Orcas are Called Killer Whales
The name 'killer whale' is actually a misnomer, because killer whales do not belong to the group, whales. In fact, they are dolphins. So, why are these dolphins called killer whales?
Orcas Named as Killer Whales by Spanish Sailors
Killer Whale Headshot
Killer Whale Headshot
The name 'killer whale' was given to orcas by Spanish sailors. These sailors, who traveled to distant locations by sea, had often been witness to the hunting skills of orcas. The Spanish sailors named them Matador de Ballenas. This term is literally translated to English as 'killer of whales'.
Somehow, the order of the words, 'killer' and 'whale', was not changed. As a result, the name 'killer whale', instead of whale killer, got associated with orcas. It is not clearly understood whether it was an error in translation or the name was accepted as it is. The Spanish sailors called them killer whales because these creatures preyed on different kinds of whales. They didn't even spare the bigger whale species.
Orcas are Efficient Hunters
Killer whales are known to prey on different kinds of sea creatures, irrespective of their size and type. Here is more on their hunting skills and efficiency. Carousel fishing, echolocation, hunting in pods, etc., are some of the techniques used by killer whales for hunting.
Carousel Fishing
Carousel Fishing
In this technique, killer whales from a pod surround a school of fish. After doing so, the orcas spew bubbles on the fish. They may also hit the prey with their tail. As a result, the prey gets distracted and becomes vulnerable to an attack.
It is one of the most efficient techniques used by killer whales to find their prey. In the echolocation technique, orcas produce sonar clicks that get reflected after striking an object. Thus, the location of the prey is easily found out using this technique.
Hunting in Pods
Hunting in Pods
Orcas hunt in groups of 30-40 called pods. The number of orcas in a pod can be up to 100. The technique that is commonly followed by killer whales to hunt whales is chasing. Orcas pursue a whale and also prevent it from surfacing for breathing. Eventually, the whale becomes tired by the relentless chase and submits to the attack by the killers whales.
Seal Hunting
Killer whale
The technique used by orcas to hunt seals displays their intelligence. Seals that rest on floating ice too are hunted by these clever creatures. The killer whales may jump out of water to frighten the seals. At times, the killer whales may jump on the ice shelves to frighten the seals, so as to force them to jump in the water.
Till the 1960s, very little was known about killer whales. These creatures are great hunters; however, they do not exhibit the same aggression observed while hunting, towards humans. Today, the growing appreciation of killer whales has led to the opposition of keeping them captive in aquaria. Movies like 'Free Willy' too have helped create awareness about killer whales. In all, orcas are interesting creatures, and one should not equate the fierceness inherent in their names with their behavior towards humans.