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Killer Whale Orcinus orca

Killer Whale Orcinus orca Photo

Killer whales are members of the toothed whales (suborder Odontoceti) that have highly encephalized brains. Dolphins, porpoises, belugas, and narwhals encephalization levels are second only to modern humans and greater than all other mammals (Marino et al. 2004). Killer whales occur in all oceans from Arctic to Antarctic ice, and from coastal waters to open ocean (Wilson and Ruff 1999). They travel into bays, channels, and estuaries. There are distinct markings among geographic populations and in some parts of the Pacific, most individuals are identified by markings and fin shape (Ford et al.1994, 2000). The ongoing research has provided us insight into the whales’ social behaviour, local movements, and diets so that today the killer whale is one of the most studied of marine mammals and sought after species by the watching industry. Most of that research has been conducted in the northeast Pacific where a few marine biologists have devoted their careers to studying this species.

The killer whale is an abundant, highly social species with no consistent geographical pattern of global diversity (Hoelzel et al. 2002). However, cetacean biologists divide the killer whales in the northeastern Pacific into three forms – resident, transient and offshore whales. ‘Offshore’ whales are not well known and there is controversy among biologists about whether they should be considered a unique group. About 300 of the ‘transients’ roam from southeast Alaska to California. Residents are divided into two genetically and morphologically distinct populations in southern British Columbia and Washington, and the northern residents in southeast Alaska (Bigg et al. 1987, Baird and Stacey 1988, Bain 1989, Ford et al. 1998, Hoelzel et al. 1998, Matkin et al. 1998).  The southern residents are found mostly in the southern Strait of Georgia, British Columbia,  Juan de Fuca Strait and Puget Sound, Washington and occasionally off Vancouver Island, the Queen Charlottes Islands, and central California (Ford et al. 1994, R. W. Baird pers. comm.). The southern residents are reproductively isolated from northern residents (Hoelzel et al. 1998). The northern residents amount to about 200 whales in 16 pods (Ford et al. 1994, 2000). The three pods that constitute the southern resident population are known as J-pod, K-pod and L-pod.  J-pod has 19 whales K-pod has 16 whales, and L-pod has 47 whales that often break into other smaller grouings (Heimlich – Boran 1988, Osborne 1999, Ford et al. 1994, Hoelzel 1992, Baird et al. 2004).


Bain, D.E. 1989.  An evaluation of evolutionary processes: studies of natural selection, dispersal, and cultural evolution: Killer whales (Orcinus orca).  Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Santa Cruz.

Baird, R.W. 2001. Status of killer whales, Orcinus orca, in Canada. Canadian Field-Naturalist 115:676-701.

Baird, R.W. and P.J. Stacey.  1988.  Variation in saddle patch pigmentation in populations of Killer whales (Orcinus orca) from British Columbia, Alaska, and Washington State.  Canadian Journal of Zoology 66:2582-2585. 

Baird, R. W. and H. Whitehead 2000. Social organization of mammal-eating killer whales: group stability and dispersal patterns. Canadian Journal of Zoology 78:2096-2105.

Bigg, M.A.,  G.M. Ellis,  J.K.B. Ford, and K.C. Balcomb.  1987.  Killer whales: a study of their identification, genealogy, and natural history in British Columbia and Washington State.  Phantom Press. Nanaimo, B.C.

Center for Biological Diversity.  2001.  Petition to list the Southern Resident Killer whale (Orcinus orca) as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act.  Center for Biological Diversity, Berkley CA.

Dahlheim, M.E., D.K. Ellifrit,  and  J.D. Swenson. 1997.  Killer whales of Southeast Alaska: a catalogue of photo-identified individuals.  Day Mon Press, Seattle.

Ford, J.K.B.,  G.M. Ellis,  L.G. Barrett-Lennard,  A.B. Morton,  R.S. Palm,  and  K.C. Balcomb.  1998.  Dietary specialization in two sympatric populations of Killer whales (Orcinus orca) in coastal British Columbia and adjacent waters.  Canadian Journal of Zoology 77:  2000.

Ford, J.K.B., G.M. Ellis, and K.C. Balcomb. 1994. Killer whales: The natural history and genealogy of Orcinus orca in British Columbia and Washington State. UBC Press, Vancouver.

Ford, J.K.B., G.M. Ellis, and K.C. Balcomb. 2000. Killer whales: The natural history and genealogy of Orcinus killer whale in British Columbia and Washington State (2nd ed.).  UBC Press, Vancouver.

Heimlich-Boran, J.R.  1988.  Behavioral Ecology of Killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the Pacific Northwest.  Canadian Journal of Zoology 66:565-578.

Hoelzel, A.R., and G.A. Dover, 1991.  Genetic differentiation between sympatric Killer whale populations.  Journal of Heredity 66:191-195.

Hoelzel, A.R., M. Dahlheim,  and  S.J. Stern. 1998.  Low genetic variation among killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the eastern North Pacific, and genetic differentiation between foraging specialists.  Journal of Heredity 89:121-128.

Hoelzel, A., R. Ada Natoli, M. E. Dahlheim, C. Olavarria, R. W. Baird and N. A. Black. 2002.
Low worldwide genetic diversity in the killer whale (Orcinus orca): implications for demographic history. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London (B) 269: 1467-1475.

Kruse, S. 1991.  The interactions between killer whales and boats in Johnstone Strait, B.C. In K. Pryor and K.S. Norris (eds). Dolphin societies.  University of California Press, Berkeley.

Marino, L., D. W. McShea and M. D. Uhen. 2004. Origin and evolution of large brains in toothed whales. In The Anatomical Record Part A: Discoveries in Molecular, Cellular, and Evolutionary Biology. Wiley-Liss, Inc.

Matkin, C.O., D. Schel, G. Ellis, L. Barrett-Lennard, H. Jurk, and E. Saulitis.  1998.  Comprehensive killer whale investigation,  Exxon Valdez oil spill restoration project annual report (Restoration project 97012).  North Gulf Oceanic Society, Homer, Alaska.

McCain, B.B., et al.  2000.  National Benthic Surveillance Project: Pacific Coast.  Organic Chemical Contaminants Cycles I to VII (1984 – 1990).  NOAA, Seattle.

Morton, A.B.  1990.  A quantitative comparison of the behavior of resident and transient forms of the Killer whale off the central British Columbia coast.  Reports of the International Whaling Commission Special Issue 12:245-248.

Morton, A. B., and H. K. Symonds. 2002. Displacement of Orcinus orca (L.) by high amplitude sound in British Columbia, Canada. ICES Journal of Marine Science 59: 71–80.

Nichol, L.M. and D. M.  Shackleton. 1996. Seasonal movements and foraging behaviour of northern resident killer whales (Orcinus orca) in relation to the inshore distribution of salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) in British Columbia. Canadian Journal of Zoology 74: 983-991.

Olesiuk, P.F., M.A. Bigg and G.M. Ellis 1990. Life history and population dynamics of resident killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the coastal waters of British Columbia and Washington State.
In: P.S. Hammond, S.A. Mizroch and G.P. Donovan (eds.): Individual recognition of cetaceans: Use of photo-identification and other techniques to estimate population parameters. Special Report #12, International Whaling Commission, Cambridge, p. 209-243

Osborne, R.W. 1991.   Historical ecology of Salish Sea “Resident” Killer whales (Orcinus orca): with implications for management.  Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Geography, University of Victoria.

Ross, P.S.  G.M. Ellis,  M.G. Ikonomu,  L.G. Barrett-Lennard,  R.F. Addison.  2000.  High PCB concentrations in free ranging Pacific Killer whales, Orcinus Killer whale: effects of age, sex and dietary preference.  Marine Pollution Bulletin. 40:504-515.

Scheel, D., C. O. Matkin and E. Saulitis.2001. Distribution of killer whale pods in Prince William Sound, Alaska 1984-1996. Marine Mammal Science 17:555-569.

Simmonds, M., and S.J. Mayer. 1997. An evaluation of environmental and other factors in some recent marine mammal mortalities in Europe: implications for conservation and management. Environmental Reviews 5:89-98. 

Stevens, T.A.,  D.A. Duffield,  E.D. Asper,  K.G. Hewlett,  A. Bolz,  L.J. Gage,  and  G.D. Bossart.  1989.  Preliminary findings of restriction fragment differences in mitochondrial DNA among Killer whales (Orcinus orca).  Canadian Journal of Zoology 67:2592-2595.

Taylor, Martin and Brent Plater.  2001.  Population viability analysis for the southern resident population of the Killer whale (Orcinus orca).  Center for Biological Diversity.  Tucson, Arizona.

Trites, A.W. and D. E. Bain.  2000.  Short and Long term Effects of whale Watching on Killer whales (Orcinus orca) in British Columbia.  University of British Columbia, Vancouver B.C.  and  Six Flags Marine World Vallejo, Vallejo, Ca.

Yurk, H., L. Barrett-Lennard, J. K. B. Ford and C. O. Matkins. 2002. Cultural transmission within maternal lineages: vocal clans in resident killer whales in southern Alaska. Animal Behaviour 63: 1103–1119




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