Allison Cook and Kathleen Callaghy

How Long Do Orcas Live, Are Orcas Dolphins, How Fast Do Orcas Swim and Other Killer Truths About These Marine Mammals

From the depths of the ocean to movie screens and newsfeeds, this black and white marine mammal has captured the hearts of millions. Orcas, also called killer whales, are wide-ranging and top predators. Though considered one species (Orcinus orca), there are several distinct populations throughout the world that vary notably in prey, genes and culture. Each ecotype is found in a specific area and hunts specific prey. 

Two orcas swimming in a body of water. The orca on the left is jumping out of the water and the one on the right is breaching, just poking its dorsal fin and tops of head out. There are faint mountains in the background.
Christopher Michel
Orcas jumping in Alaskan waters.

Read on to uncover what orcas eat, if orcas are whales or dolphins, how fast orcas swim and some little-known facts about killer whales.

Are Orcas Dolphins?

Yes, orcas are members of the dolphin family. They are actually the largest dolphins, reaching up to 32 feet long and weighing up to 11 tons.  

But did you know, dolphins are whales? Whales, dolphins and porpoises are part of the scientific class Cetacea. The class then splits into two suborders: baleen and toothed whales. Baleen whales include critically endangered North Atlantic Right whales and humpbacks. Toothed whales include the scientific families Monodontidae (belugas and narwhals), Phocoenidae (porpoises), Ziphiidae (beaked whales), Physeteridae (sperm whales) and Delphinidae. Dolphins and orcas belong to the Delphinidae family.

An orca jumps out of the water. It's head is angled up towards the sky but its underbelly faces the camera. There is a faint outline of mountains in the background.
Sarah Brown
An orca breaching near Vancouver, British Columbia. Orcas have large areas of white on their underside that help them blend in with the lighter surface when they swim above potential prey.
Do Orcas Have Unique Patterns?

Killer whales have disruptive coloration, or a pattern that obscures their outline. Seen from above, their bodies are primarily black and blend in with the dark depths of the ocean. From below, their bodies have large areas of white, which mix well with the lighter surface. This special coloration helps orcas to hunt without their prey seeing them as a potential predator until it is too late.

The exact markings, including the shape and color of the white-gray saddle patch behind the dorsal fin and dorsal fin size and shape vary between individuals and populations, helping researchers identify and study individual orcas.

A graphic with a bonus fact on it and a photo of an orca breaching the waters surface. The mist from this orcas breath of air makes a rainbow.
Where are Orcas’ eyes?

At a quick glance, one might think orcas’ eyes are the large white patch on either side of their head. This is by design, however, to trick predators. Killer whales’ eyes are actually located in front of the white patch, and just above and behind the corner of their mouths.

Where Do Orcas Live?

Orcas live in every ocean and are the most widespread cetacean in the world. They are found in coastal waters and open sea. Most are found in colder waters, with Antarctica being home to the most and those in the North Pacific being the most studied.

There are several (at least 10) distinct ecotypes. Each ecotype displays different behaviors and genetics and has different diets and appearances. In the North Pacific alone, there are three main types of orcas: Resident, Transient and Offshore. Not to be confused with Iberian orcas that made headlines after sinking three yachts in 2022 and 2023.

A young southern resident orca chases a chinook salmon under the water. The photo is taken from above.
Holly Fearnbach and Lance Barrett-Lennard/NOAA permit #19091
A young Southern Resident orca chasing a salmon in the Salish Sea near San Juan Island, Washington.
What Do Orcas Eat?

Orcas eat a variety of sea creatures, depending on which ecotype they belong to and where they live. Take the three types of North Pacific killer whales, for example. Resident orcas are fish-eating killer whales that primarily eat salmon and some subtypes. Some have preferred species of salmon, like the Southern Residents that specifically prefer the endangered Chinook salmon.  

Offshore orcas eat an even wider variety of fish including sharks (yes, some orcas do eat sharks). Transient orcas have a more varied diet among the three, eating squid and other marine species including seals and other dolphin and whale species (yes, some orcas do eat dolphins).

How Fast Can Orcas Swim?

While orcas are the largest dolphin, they are not the fastest. Killer whales can swim up to 35 miles per hour. They come in second only to the common dolphin, which can reach 37 miles per hour.

A Transient orca jumps out of the water, making an arch with its body. It's back half and tail are almost completely covered with a white wave, splash.
Troy Kallman
A transient orca jumping out of the water in the Monterey Bay, California.
How Long Do Orcas Live?

Globally, orcas have been documented to live up to 90 years old in the wild. On average, however, female orca live about 50 years while males live about 30 years.  

How Many Orcas are Left in the World?

Roughly 50,000 orcas are left in the world. Several populations have declined recently, with some, like Southern Resident orcas becoming endangered.

Are Orcas Endangered?

While orcas as an overall species are not listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, scientists have seen declines in several distinct populations around the world. Southern Resident killer whales are the only population listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. There are fewer than 80 Southern Residents remaining.  

Southern Resident Orca Calf
Monika Wieland Shields
Southern Resident orca calf poking its head out of the water.
What Can We Do to Help Orcas?
  • Keep the Ocean Clean! Reduce, reuse, and recycle to help keep plastics and toxic contaminants out of waterways. Additionally, limiting chemical use in your yard and planting a raingarden can help reduce pollution in stormwater runoff.  
  • Volunteer for beach cleanups or habitat restoration projects in your area.  
  • Respect wildlife. If you spot orcas while out on the water, keep quiet, stay low and give them their space. 


A Cook Headshot

Allison Cook

Content Writer

Areas of Expertise: Communications, writing for the blog and website

Allison joined Defenders of Wildlife in 2023 after working for Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation

Kathleen Callaghy

Kathleen Callaghy

Northwest Representative
As a Representative for the Northwest field team, Kathleen leads Defenders’ policy engagement on endangered species in Washington State, working with local policymakers and coalition partners on the recovery of southern resident orcas, salmon, and grizzly bears.

Wildlife & Wild Places

Southern Resident Orca Breaching
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