Oct. 8, 2020
As many of you know, southern Vancouver Island is one of the best places in the world to see wild killer whales. We often see them on our whale watching tours from Victoria.
We’re frequently asked why they’re called killer whales. Or why some people call them orcas. Which is it? And where did these different names come from?
To start, let’s unpack the simple words “killer whale.”
We’ll get one thing out of the way quickly. Technically, killer whales are the largest member of the dolphin family. So, really, they’re killer dolphins. But because of their size, the word “whale” is used in their name. “Whale” isn’t a scientific term. It’s just a way to describe size. Whales are really big. Some dolphins can be pretty big. Most dolphins and porpoises are not so big.
Why are they called killers?
Well, because they are. As the top ocean predator, they kill other animals to make a living, although diets vary among different populations around the world. To put the word “killer” into more context, remember that until about 55 years ago, killer whales were widely viewed by non-Indigenous societies as the embodiment of evil, ready to destroy boats and devour mariners at every opportunity.
“A killer whale cannot be properly depicted or described except as an enormous mass of flesh armed with savage teeth,” Roman scholar Pliny the Elder famously wrote in the first century, AD.
We know what you’re thinking. That was a long time ago. Surely we became more enlightened in modern times? Nope. As late as 1973, US Navy diving manuals described the killer whale as “extremely ferocious,” warning that “they will attack human beings at every opportunity.” (There was absolutely no evidence to support this statement.)
So, it’s no surprise that when mariners plying the seas hundreds of years ago saw them preying on large whales (as some populations do), they labelled them in their language as “whale killers.” Somewhere along the line over time, that got flipped to killer whales.
Do they kill people? There are no documented cases anywhere of a wild killer whale killing a human. Captivity is a different, sad story. There have been several tragic cases of trainers being drowned by captive killer whales, which live in very unnatural, stressful conditions. None of these were predatory attacks.
What are orcas then?
Orca is another word for killer whale. It comes from the whale’s scientific Latin name, Orcinus orca. Some people choose to use “orca,” arguing that “killer whale” sounds too evil. The killer whale camp—which includes most scientists—prefers to call them what they are.
It’s an ongoing and lively debate.
Before you make up your own mind, be aware that Orcinus doesn’t have very jolly connotations either. It means “belonging to the kingdom of the dead.” And orca, according to some sources, translates into “large-bellied jar or cask,” probably referring to their body shape. As in “Oooh, look at that large-bellied jar over there!”
What’s in a name? Plenty
But let’s take a much broader view. Did you know that killer whales are one of the most widely distributed mammals on the planet? They’re found in every sea around the world, where they’ve been an important part of coastal Indigenous cultures for millennia.
In the Pacific northwest, Indigenous peoples have always regarded killer whales with awe and respect, which is why they figure prominently in Indigenous art, mythology and social structure.
For example, the Haida people of the Haida Gwaii islands off BC’s north coast revered the killer whale, or Ska’na, as the most powerful inhabitant of the undersea world, where they lived in houses and ruled over other creatures.
Among the Kwakwaka’wakw on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island the killer whale, or Max‘inux, was one of the first ancestors, the mythical beings to which each family group traced its origins. They saw the killer whale as the supreme ruler of the world beneath the ocean.
To the Nuu-chah-nulth of western Vancouver Island the killer whale, or kakaw’in, is the enforcer of the sea. As with other coastal First Nations, they believe that killer whales can embody the souls of deceased chiefs.
The names go on and on, as varied as the Indigenous cultures who use them. There’s kéet to the Tlingit in southeast Alaska. Polossatik (the feared one) to Aleuts on Kodiak Island in Alaska. Arluq to the eastern Arctic Inuit. Qw’e lh’ol’ me chen (our relations who live under the water) to the Lummi Nation in Washington State.
Sword whales and fat choppers
There’s also an impressive variety of names for killer whales in countries around the world, although in modern times quite a few languages, as in English, are also using some variation of “orca.”
Examples of traditional names include mörderwal (whale murderer) or schertwal (sword whale) in German. Ballena asesino (whale assassin) in Basque, épaulard in French, zwaardwalvis (sword whale) in Dutch, spaekhugger (fat chopper) or vaghund (hunting together like dogs) in Norwegian, kasatka in Russian, háhyrningur in Icelandic, maki by the Maori in New Zealand, pictwhale in Scottish and shachi or repun kamui (master of the open sea) in Japanese.
And just to add to the mystique, killer whales are also sometimes colloquially referred to as blackfish, sea wolf and grampus, although the last term is rarely used now because it confuses with the genus, Grampus, which refers to another large dolphin species, the Risso’s dolphin.
So there you have it. Take your pick from this vast selection!
Blog written by Valerie Shore, marine naturalist with Eagle Wing Tours.