Where Do Killer Whales Live?

Marine Mammal Basics

Two Killer whales surfacing with a splash
Tyson Mackay/All Canada Photos/Getty Images

Despite their prevalence in marine parks such as SeaWorld, killer whales (otherwise known as orcas) are a wide-ranging cetacean species in the wild. Learn more about where killer whales live and how they survive.

Killer whales are found in all of the world's oceans. In fact, the Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals states that they are "second only to humans as the most widely distributed mammal in the world." You can see a killer whale range map on the IUCN site here.

These animals seem to prefer cooler waters, but may be found from warm waters around the Equator to polar waters. Orcas may enter semi-enclosed seas, river mouths and ice-riddled areas, in addition to inhabiting waters far out in the open ocean.You may think they only live in deep oceans, but populations have been recorded living for longer periods of time in only a few meters of water. 

The question of where killer whales live is complicated by the fact that there is disagreement over how many species of killer whales there are. Studies on killer whale genetics, physical appearance, diet, and vocalizations have led scientists to believe that there are more than one species (or at least subspecies) of killer whales (you can see a great illustration of the different types of killer whales here). Once this question is answered, the habitat for various species may become more defined.

  • SeaWorld notes that there are a few different types of Antarctic killer whales in different regions: 
  • Type A killer whales live offshore in water that does not include ice.
  • Type B orcas live in inshore waters of Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula; large type B near the pack ice; and small type B venture out to more open waters.
  • Type C killer whales inhabit inshore waters and pack ice. They are most commonly found in the eastern Antarctic.
  • Type D orcas reside in deep, subantarctic waters.

The whales move around and can migrate based on where their prey goes.

Where Orcas Live

Areas where killer whales have been well-studied include:

  • The Southern Ocean around Antarctica
  • The Pacific Northwest (where salmon-eating resident orcas, mammal-eating transient orcas and shark-eating offshore orcas have been identified)
  • Alaska
  • North Atlantic Ocean (Norway, Iceland, Scotland and the Strait of Gibralter
  • On more rare occasions they have been seen in waters off of the Bahamas, Florida, Hawaii, Australia, the Galapagos Islands, the Gulf of Mexico, New Zealand, and South Africa.
  • Rarely, they have been seen in freshwater locations. 

Killer Whale Living Relationships

Within the populations of killer whales in various areas, there may be pods and clans. Pods are long-term units made up of males, females and calves. Within the pods, there are smaller units called maternal groups, consisting of mothers and their offspring. Above the pods in the social structure are clans. These are groups of pods that associate over time and may be related to each other.

Want to see killer whales in the wild? You can see a list of whale watching sites around the world, many of which offer the opportunity to see killer whales, here.