Killer Whale vs Shark

Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) breaching.
© Tory Kallman/

Written by Colby Maxwell

Updated: October 11, 2022

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Killer whales and sharks are two of the most famous creatures that live in the oceans of the world. They are both amazing creatures that have distinct roles in their watery ecosystems. Today, we are going to be comparing these two apex predators to learn a little more about them. Although they have some similarities, they are incredibly different. Let’s explore: Killer Whale vs Shark; what makes them unique?

Comparing a Killer Whale and a Shark

Killer whales are large mammals and members of the dolphin family. Sharks are fish that come in a variety of species.
Killer whaleShark
SizeLength: 20-26 feet long
Weight: 6+ tons
Smallest shark: Dwarf lanternshark
Largest shark: Whale shark
AppearanceDolphin-like in appearance. Distinctive black and white pigmentation.Varies greatly, but often have gray bodies and distinct fins.
ClassificationMammals. Belong to the infra order Cetacea (whales). Members of the dolphin family.Cartilaginous (cartilage-based) fish. Related to rays and other non-bony fish.
DistributionWorldwide in arctic and tropical waters.Worldwide in all waters.
Underwater breathingBreathes air. Can hold breath for 15 minutes.Breathes water through gills.
DietApex predator. Fish, sharks, rays, mammals, whales, seals, and almost anything else.Varies greatly. Almost everything.
PredatorsNo natural predators.Anything larger than it, especially killer whales.

The 7 Main Differences between a Killer Whale and a Shark

The main differences between killer whales and sharks are that killer whales are mammals, have a distinct black and white coloration, and are regular predators of sharks. Sharks are a group of fish that are cartilage-based, have 5-7 gill slits, and pectoral fins not fused to their heads.

Killer whales, or orcas, as they are known, are a species of toothed whales that belong to the dolphin family. They are large creatures that are considered to be the ocean’s top predators without much competition. Additionally, orcas are extremely intelligent, social, and hunt as a pack. Sharks are well-known predators in the world’s oceans, with more than 500 species documented. Within that large group is a lot of variation.

Orcas are among the larger creatures in the ocean, although the largest sharks (whale sharks) are larger. The largest predatory shark in the world, the great white, is still smaller than an adult orca, however. Only filter-feeding sharks like the whale shark and the bigmouth shark rival the orca in size.

Although both creatures strike fear into the heart of a swimmer, they are quite easy to tell apart. Orcas have a distinct black and white pattern that resembles that of a panda. Additionally, they have toothed mouths and much longer dorsal fins than sharks. The appearance of a shark depends on the species, but most are long, streamlined, and gray in color.

Aside from these differences, there are a few more, including their classifications, distribution, and diets. Let’s explore Killer Whale vs Sharks a bit more below!

Killer Whale vs Shark: Size

Killer Whale vs Shark

Killer whales are 20-26 feet long and weigh 6+ tons. Sharks vary depending on the species.

©Tory Kallman/

When it comes to size, killer whales are usually larger than sharks. Adult orcas are 20-26 feet long and weigh over 6 tons. Females are a few feet shorter and weigh a bit less.

Sharks are extremely variable in size. The smallest shark in the world is smaller than a human hand, but the largest species, the whale shark, can weigh as much as 15 tons and measure 60 feet long. The largest predatory shark, the great white shark, can grow to 21 feet long and weigh between 1,200 and 1,700 lbs. Only filter-feeder sharks grow larger than the orca.

Killer Whale vs Shark: Appearance

Killer Whale vs Shark

Killer whales have black and white colorations. Sharks are usually gray and streamlined but still have a lot of variation.


There are few more distinct creatures in the ocean than the killer whale. Killer whales have a clear whale or dolphin-like body shape, but with their famous black and white pattern. They have rounded snouts and long dorsal fins.

Sharks vary greatly in appearance according to their species. Many predatory sharks have gray bodies, sharp teeth, and distinct dorsal fins that occasionally stick out of the water. Still, hundreds of variations occur, with anomalies like the hammerhead shark, megamouth shark, and goblin sharks all having extremely distinct appearances.

Killer Whale vs Shark: Classification

Killer Whale vs Shark

Killer whales are mammals and members of the dolphin family. Sharks are cartilage-based fish.


Although killer whales live in the ocean, they are technically classified as mammals. Orcas belong to a group known as “toothed whales,” along with sperm whales. All whales are cetaceans, including dolphins, with orcas specifically being classified as members of the dolphin family.

Sharks are very old creatures that go back millions of years. They are technically fish and further classified as cartilaginous fish, or cartilage-based fish, as opposed to bony fish.

Killer Whale vs Shark: Distribution

Killer Whale vs Shark

Both orcas and

sharks can be found in every ocean in the world



Killer whales are extremely widespread animals that can be found in nearly every ocean in the world, including the cold ones. They have a “cosmopolitan” distribution, meaning they can be found nearly everywhere. These hardy animals can even be found in the arctic and antarctic oceans.

Individual shark species are usually relegated to certain regions, but the group as a whole can be found in nearly every place in the world’s oceans. From the surface-dwelling nurse shark to the deep-diving Portuguese dogfish sharks that live 12,057 feet down, you can find sharks everywhere.

Killer Whale vs Shark: Underwater breathing

Killer Whale vs Shark

Orcas can’t breathe underwater but can hold their breath for 15 minutes. Sharks use gills for breathing underwater.

©Andrea Izzotti/

As mammals, orcas aren’t able to breathe water. Instead, they utilize a blow-hole, similar to other whales. With a single breath, killer whales can stay under for around 15 minutes.

Sharks do breathe underwater and utilize gills in order to do so. In order for a shark to breathe, however, it needs to keep moving in order to force fresh water over its gills to pull oxygen from the water.

Killer Whale vs Shark: Diet

Killer Whale vs Shark

Killer whales eat fish, turtles, other dolphins, sharks,

seals, sea lions

, and more.

Sharks eat

fish, turtles, sea lions, seals, and more.


Orcas are the apex predators in any environment they are found. Lone orcas can kill seals, sea lions, sea turtles, and even sharks and dolphins. In many places, orcas target sharks, flip them upside down to paralyze them, and eat their livers. As a pack, orcas are able to kill large whales together.

Sharks are also apex predators, although their diet mostly depends on the species. Large predatory sharks kill sea turtles, seals, fish, and other similar prey. Filter feeders gulp large amounts of water and pass it over filter pads in order to clear out the small microscopic creatures they live on.

Killer Whale vs Shark: Predators

Killer Whale vs Shark

Killer whales have no natural predators.

Sharks face different threats

according to their size, but even great whites are hunted by killer whales.

©Sergey Uryadnikov/

Orcas have virtually no predators in the wild. The only real threat they face is from humans and human-caused events.

The size of a shark is mostly what determines its level of predation. When a shark is small, virtually any larger fish is able to prey on it as they aren’t protected by an adult as orcas are. For smaller sharks, large fish, other sharks, and more all pose a risk. For larger sharks like tiger sharks and great whites, the only real threats are killer whales.

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About the Author

Colby is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering outdoors, unique animal stories, and science news. Colby has been writing about science news and animals for five years and holds a bachelor's degree from SEU. A resident of NYC, you can find him camping, exploring, and telling everyone about what birds he saw at his local birdfeeder.

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