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 mammal-eating killer whales pursuing baleen whales. The name whale killer morphed to killer whales and stuck. We have since learned that different ecotypes of killer whales lead their own unique lifestyles, consuming prey that suits their needs based on location, physiology, and even culture. For example, killer whales 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 killer whales) and salmon-eating killer whales (called 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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