British Columbia·CBC Explains

Why are orcas called killer whales?

They're the apex predators of the sea, but many feel the whales' long-used common name demonizes them.

They're the apex predators of the sea, but many feel their long-used common name demonizes them

Killer whales have a broad range in diet, from chinook salmon to marine mammals and even sharks. (Centre for Whale Research)

Killer whales kill. If you've ever seen orcas hunt their prey, this is an undeniable fact. 

They are the apex predators of the ocean. 

"Everything in the ocean is is either small enough to not be on the menu or looking over its shoulder for killer whales coming," says Lance Barrett-Lennard, an orca researcher at the Vancouver Aquarium. 

It's perhaps a little surprising, then, that the name "killer whale" — which has been used in English for hundreds of years — can provoke strong, negative reactions today.

Whenever CBC posts a story about killer whales, we'll typically get at least a few comments along these lines:

  • "ORCA! Not killer whales. Good grief."
  • "'Killer whale'? You know better, CBC. Be a leader. Step up."
  • "I guess the people who do the headline for social media go for shock value."
The species Orcinus orca has been called "killer whale" in English for hundreds of years. (Tamara Baluja/CBC)

So, how did killer whales get their name? 

When European fishermen and whalers encountered killer whales hundreds of years ago, they saw them take down other large marine mammals — sometimes the very whales that they were trying to capture.

There's a theory that originally they were called "whale killers" by Basque fishermen and when that was translated into English it became "killer whales."

But even if one ignores the translation mess up, a lot of cultures have less than savoury names for orcas, such as: 

  • spækhugger (Norwegian), meaning blubber chopper;

  • baleia assassina (Portuguese), or assassin whale;

  • mörderwal (German), also translated to murder whale;

  • polossatik (Aleut), meaning the feared one.

"The names that have been used for killer whales over the ages by different cultures all reflect this kind of awe and, to some extent, fear," Barrett-Lennard said. 

Why are orcas called killer whales?

4 years ago
Duration 3:36
How did killer whales get their name and should we call them orcas instead? Orca researcher Lance Barrett-Lennard explains.

Do killer whales deserve that reputation?

Killer whales eat a broad range of meat, but they can be selective. 

Different populations can have particular diets and hunting habits — such as the endangered southern residents that prefer chinook salmon.

"You're talking about a predator that can take on just about anything," says Barrett-Lennard, who points to the intelligence of the species.

"They don't have armour. They don't have spines. They don't have huge teeth, actually, even given their size. What they've got is huge brains and the ability to work socially."

Using its tail, an orca flips a seal high into the air:

Killer whales will hunt larger whales by working together as a group to drown them by covering their blowholes.

They will ram sea lions and seals with their powerful tails until they're concussed and unable to defend themselves. Killer whales will even hunt great white sharks.

They are also highly social creatures that show almost human-like emotions, such as when southern resident J35 carried its dead calf for 17 days before finally letting go.

This photo from July 2018 shows the orca J35 balancing its dead baby on its nose, trying to keep it afloat. (Kelley Balcomb-Bartok)

Have killer whales killed humans?

Despite what the 1977 film Orca might show, there have been no documented cases of orcas killing humans in the wild. 

There have, however, been instances of trainers who were dragged underwater and drowned by captive killer whales.

"What's interesting about those cases is, sad as they are, those weren't predatory attacks," Barrett-Lennard said, noting the victims weren't eaten.

Is 'orca' a more suitable name?

Paul Spong, a researcher who runs OrcaLab from Hanson Island in B.C., says he finds the name killer whale "rather unfair to a creature that deserves and lives a peaceful lifestyle." 

"'Killer whales' has that flavour that they're somehow vicious animals that are a danger to humans," he said. "I just happen to think that using a more neutral term is better."

He makes a conscious effort to call them orcas — despite knowing that that name, which comes from the whales' Latin name Orcinus orca, also evokes death.

"Orcinus" translates as "of the realms of the dead," while "orca" means a large-bellied jar.

Other scientists like Barrett-Lennard prefer using the whale's common name. 

"We all kind of are not particularly in favour of sanitizing anything to do with science, and these animals … they kill for a living," he said.

But Barret-Lennard and Spong agree that scientists and the wider public should be more concerned about understanding killer whales, their behaviour and their role in the oceans, rather than focusing on their names.

For the record — as you may have noticed — CBC's policy is to use killer whales and orcas interchangeably. 

Killers: J pod on the brink is a CBC British Columbia original podcast about the southern resident killer whales, hosted by Gloria Macarenko. You can get it now for free at CBC Podcasts