Killer whale / orca

  • Scientific name: Orcinus orca
  • Length: up to 9.8m
  • Marine mammal type: cetacean
  • Family: Delphinidae
  • IUCN Conservation status: Data deficient
  • Protected by: CITES


A coastal or pelagic species measuring up to 9.8 metres in length, white ventrally with characteristic white markings on the sides, throat, chin and eye, on a black background, tall straight (in males) or curved (in females and juveniles) dorsal fin and no ‘beak’.

Killer whales have a gestation period of 16 to 17 months, calves are born at any time of the year, measuring 2.0 to 2.5 metres, and are around 4 metres in length when weaned. The species lives in stable groups of 3 to 50 and feeds on squid, fish and marine mammals.

Where to see them

This species is widely distributed on the Atlantic seaboard, being mainly seen off northern Scotland, and occasionally off the Atlantic coasts of Britain and Ireland in the summer months.

The UK has one small pod that are entirely resident in our waters, usually referred to as the West Coast pod. Sadly this group has not produced a calf in over 25 years, and recent research on samples taken from a deceased individual showed it to have extremely high levels of a chemical pollutant called polychlorinated biphenyls, which have been associated with suppressing immune systems and reducing fertility. These chemicals were banned in the 1980s due to their toxicity, but take a very long time to break down, and as such are still leaching into the environment from places like landfills where they have not been disposed of properly, so continue to affect wildlife in the present. In all likelihood we will see the extinction of our only resident orcas as a result.

There are semi-resident pods that also visit the UK as well as transient animals that pass through on occasion, so they won’t disappear entirely.


Live strandings of this species are very rare in the UK. Similar to bottlenose dolphins, they are very savvy at navigating in inshore waters and it is very unusual for them to be caught out by tides and currents. Instead it is more often the case that they are very ill, injured or even reaching the end of their natural life.

An orca that live stranded in Kent in 1995 was the first major live stranding incident attended by BDMLR. Although it refloated on the tide, it was not in good condition and unsurprisingly restranded dead the following day.

What to do if you find a stranded animal?

A whale, dolphin or porpoise stranded on the beach is obviously not a usual phenomenon. These animals do not beach themselves under normal circumstances, and they will require assistance. Please DO NOT return them to the sea as they may need treatment and or a period of recovery before they are fit enough to swim strongly.

01825 765546 (24hr)
RSPCA hotline (England & Wales): 0300 1234 999
SSPCA hotline (Scotland): 03000 999 999

You will receive further advice over the phone, but important things you can do to help are:

  • Support the animal in an upright position and dig trenches under the pectoral fins.
  • Cover the animal with wet sheets or towels (even seaweed) and keep it moist by spraying or dousing with water.
  • Do NOT cover, or let any water pass down the blowhole (nostril), sited on top of the animal’s head. This will cause the animal great distress and could even kill it.
  • Every movement around a stranded animal should be quiet, calm and gentle. Excessive noise and disturbance will only stress it further.
  • Estimate the length of the animal and look for any distinguishing features that may give clues as to the species you are dealing with.
  • Look for signs of injury and count the number of breaths (opening of the blowhole) over a minute – this can give important clues as to how stressed the animal is.
  • Take great care when handling a dolphin, porpoise or whale; keep away from the tail, as it can inflict serious injuries – this is particularly the case with whales and it is advisable to leave handling larger whales until experienced help arrives. Avoid the animal’s breath, as it may carry some potentially nasty bacteria.
  • Provide information: Give the hotline an exact location for the animal – this can save valuable and perhaps critical time. If you have a mobile, give the number to the hotline.
  • Give an accurate description of the animal, including its breathing rate, and whether it is in surf, on rocks or sand, in the shade or in the full glare of the sun.
  • Information on weather conditions and sea state are also helpful.
  • The hotline should be informed of any attempts already made to push the animal back into the sea.
  • Maintain control.
  • Keep all contact, noise and disturbance to a minimum.
  • Under no circumstances, release the animal into the sea before the rescue team has arrived. It is fine to support a smaller dolphin or porpoise in the water, as long as the blowhole is kept above the water at all times, and as long as it is carried to the water carefully, e.g. in a tarpaulin (do NOT drag it or lift it by its fins or tail).
  • However, actually releasing the animal before it has received an assessment and first aid from experienced personnel can do more harm than good.

If you find a dead cetacean

The Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP) collects a wide range of data on each stranding found on UK shores. If you discover a dead animal, please contact the CSIP hotline and give a description of the following where possible:

  • Location and date found
  • Species and sex
  • Overall length
  • Condition of the animal
  • Your contact details should further information be needed

Digital images are extremely helpful to identify to species, as well as ascertaining whether the body may be suitable for post-mortem examination. 

CSIP has produced a useful leaflet that can be downloaded by clicking here.

CSIP hotline: 0800 6520333. Callers are given a number of options to ensure they reach the correct department. You can also use this number to contact BDMLR as there is an option for live animal strandings that transfers directly to us.