Like many species, killer whales were named during a time of exploration and fear of the great unknown. Sailors launched their vessels into a barely-explored ocean, and returned with tales of sea monsters, including “whale killers.”

More than likely, these sailors had seen killer whales that specialize in hunting large whales. The name whale killer morphed to killer whales and stuck.

We have since learned that different populations of killer whales lead their own unique lifestyles, consuming prey that suits their needs based on location, physiology, and even culture.

For example, some killer whale populations in the Atlantic Ocean switch between preying on marine mammals and herring. Offshore killer whales in the Pacific Ocean are thought to eat mostly sharks. The inland waters of the Salish Sea are home to both mammal-eating killer whales (called Bigg’s or transient killer whales) and salmon-eating killer whales (known as the Southern Residents).

Regardless of what they eat, killer whales of all ecotypes are renowned for their remarkably cohesive social structures, playful demeanor, strong familial ties, and curiosity. These traits make them both successful hunters and wonderful company for the lucky humans among us who have encountered them in their natural habitat. There are no documented cases of a killer whale harming a human in the wild.

The name killer whale is likely fitting from the perspective of a seal or a salmon, but to us, a chatty, breaching family of killer whales seems anything but menacing. Perhaps the name is in the eye of the beholder.

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