Killer whale


Latin: Orcinus orca

IUCN Red List status: Data deficient

Note: This is a very rare species for Manx waters
Physical appearance

The orca, or killer whale, is in fact a huge dolphin, with males reaching 8m (26ft) and the females 7m (23ft) in length. The adult male dorsal fin is huge in comparison to body size and very tall and straight reaching almost 2m (6ft). The female and juvenile male dorsal fins are smaller and more curved. They have a square head with no beak. Colour is distinctive with sharp contrast between the black body and white eye patches and underside, and a grey saddle patch behind the dorsal fin. 

Risso's dolphins looking just like killer whales. Photo by Kirrie Jenkins
Manx distribution

There has never been a confirmed sighting of killer whales in Manx waters by way of photograph, though people have described sightings from decades past which do sound like killer whales.

Some confusion may come from the unusual appearance of Risso’s dolphins with their large robust body and their large dorsal fin in proportion to body size. In silhouette, Risso’s dolphin dorsal fins (picture left) can appear tall, straight, and almost black, not dissimilar to a female or juvenile male killer whale. Additionally the Risso’s dolphin scarring can create an appearance of a black body with white patches as might be expected on a killer whale.

Prior to MWDW starting in 2005, the regular species using Manx waters were unknown and many people may not have expected to see such a large dolphin as the little known Risso’s, and hence equated their sighting with the widely recognised killer whale species.

UK Distribution
West Coast Community

The only killer whales we would ever be likely to see in Manx waters are from the West Coast Community. This small pod of killer whales is the only group resident to the British Isles and has numbered just ten individuals since studying began in 1992. Two individuals, known as John Coe and Aquarius, are believed to be the last two living members of this pod, with no other members having been seen since 2016. John Coe and Aquarius are both mature males giving them distinctive and easily recognisable tall dorsal fins. John Coe, with an easily spotted notch in his lower dorsal fin was first photographed as an adult in 1980 making him an estimated 60 years old! Aquarius is believed to be at least 30 years old.

The pair predominantly spend their time around the Hebridean Islands of West Scotland, with occasional jaunts to other locations such as around Ireland and as far as Pembrokeshire and Cornwall. As sightings of the pair have been confirmed from around the Irish Sea it could be possible for them to pass through Manx waters. Any sightings around the island of more than two animals or lacking the distinctive male dorsal fins can almost certainly be ruled out as being killer whales.

Orkney and Sheltand

Non-resident killer whales can be seen frequently off the Orkney and Shetland Isles, and many of these individuals are known to travel between there and Iceland. In 2021, the Scottish Killer Whale Photo Identification Catalogue 2021 was put together, detailing every known individual in Scottish waters. 



Killer whales are the top ocean predators. Being widely distributed around the world means they live in a variety of habitats and have a wide range of prey including fish, mammals, birds, turtles and even the great white shark. Distinctive groups, or ‘ecotypes’ of killer whales have become specialised in their prey preferences, with some populations relying entirely on a single species such as the southern resident killer whales of the Pacific north-west who eat only salmon. Killer whales are highly intelligent and coordinated hunters displaying a range of specialised techniques including beaching themselves in Patagonia to catch elephant seals, or synchronised swimming creating waves to wash seals off ice floes in Antarctica.

Killer whale ecotypes & forms poster.

North Pacific

  • Fish eating ‘residents’
  • Mammal eating ‘transients’ or ‘Bigg’s’
  • Mixed eating ‘offshore’
  • Type A – ‘Antarctic’ mammal eating, primarily minke whales
  • Type B1 – large ‘pack ice’ mammal eating, primarily seals
  • Type B2 – small ‘Gerlache’s’ appears primarily penguin eating
  • Type C – ‘Ross Sea’ known to eat Antarctic toothfish
  • Type D – ‘Sub-Antarctic’ known to eat Patagonian toothfish
North Atlantic
There is some argument for the Type 1 and 2 classifications not to be used until more is understood about North Atlantic killer whales but broadly:
  • Type 1 – mixed eating pods
  • Type 2 – mammal eating including the West Coast Community

Report a Sighting

Have you seen a killer whale in Manx waters? Report your sighting to us.