When did Orca’s adopt the name Killer Whale? The misconceptions of Killer Whales
They are found in every ocean of the world. Females can grow to 28 feet in length and can weigh up to 16,000 lbs. Males are considerably larger, reaching up to 32 feet and 22,000 lbs. They can dive as deep as 1,500 feet and can swim over 30 mph. They are strict carnivores and wonderfully adapted to find, catch and eat a wide variety of marine animals. Some feed primarily on fish and seldom roam beyond a relatively small home range. Others, however, must travel greater distances searching for their preferred prey…whales, dolphins and other marine mammals.
For thousands of years this magnificent creature has held a special place in the hearts, minds, customs and mythology of many human cultures. Over the centuries it has been known by many names. Almost all, however, are just some variation of its most widely known identity of “killer whale.” Today this common name continues to be the one most often used and accepted by marine mammal professionals and lay people alike. Recently, however, some folks, searching for a more politically correct title perhaps, have suggested that killer whale is inaccurate and in some way demeaning to this incredible animal. They prefer (and in some cases insist on) the title of “orca.”
It may be interesting to note that the term orca is derived from the species’ scientific name Orcinus orca. Orca is Latin for “a kind of whale.” With over seventy different species of cetaceans living today, this term alone might seem rather vague for such a unique animal. The genus, Orcinus, translates to “belonging to the realms of the dead” or “bringer of death.” So it appears that even the scientific title for this species is really just a Latin translation of killer whale.
How then did this highly popular animal attain its infamous name and reputation in the first place? Some people have suggested that ‘killer whale’ is simply a mis-translation from earlier Spanish sailor’s descriptions of the animals as ‘whale killers’ because they were often seen hunting in groups and slaughtering much larger whales for food. This hypothesis may be partially true and certainly applicable in some geographic areas, but it does not explain why so many ancient people and cultures all over the world provide similarly descriptive names for this animal. These names are all based upon this species’ unique and awesome power and ability to kill (and sometimes not even eat) not only whales much larger than itself, but just about any species of marine mammal it desires, including, seals, sea lions, walruses, dolphins and porpoises. Throughout history the power, skill and intensity of this animal’s hunting and killing prowess has been legendary. It serves as the basis not only for its name, but also for its often mythic status and place of ultimate respect among many ancient and modern cultures. To the native Haida tribes of coastal British Columbia the animal is called skana, which translates to “killer demon; supernatural power.” To the Aleut of Kodiak Island, Alaska it is polossatik, “the feared one.” These are very old and honored names for an animal that is not only feared but also revered and respected.