Killer Whale Hunting Methods

Killer whales on the hunt is one of the most awe-inspiring sights in nature.

With the exception of humans, killer whales will hunt and eat virtually anything that goes anywhere near the sea, including fish, sharks, squid, octopi, seals, sea lions, walruses, otters, sea turtles, porpoises, dolphins, penguins, sea gulls, and whale calves. But most spectacular of all is when killer whales team up to attack juvenile or even fully grown whales that stray too far from the protection of their pods, a feat which earned these largest of dolphins their original Spanish name, "whale killers."

Biologists have classified three types of killer whale pod. "Offshore pods" range over huge distances away from the shore, travelling in large groups and feeding mainly on schools of deep-sea fish. Because they live away from the land, these elusive pods can go for years without being sighted by humans, and thus their exact behavior remains the least well understood.

"Resident pods" are killer whale pods that live year round in a very small area, usually near the safety of the coast. These pods tend to consist of smaller or runt-sized adults who can't compete with the powerful offshore pods. Resident pods also feed primarily on fish.

Finally there are the "transient pods," which migrate up and down the coastline to follow their prey: large marine mammals. It is these pods that are most frequently witnessed attacking whales.

Killer whales usually hunt in teams of two or three, working together to isolate and kill their prey, but when attacking the largest targets, adult gray whales for example, teams of six or even eight killer whales are known. Male killer whales usually hunt alone, so most group hunting is done by females and juveniles under their care.

Killer whales are extremely intelligent, and this is reflected in their hunting methods. Communication between the killer whales, using a language of clicks and whistles, is crucial to their cooperation during the attacks. The killer whales also call other whales in their family group, often from up to 10 miles away, to share in the feast once their kill is complete.

When hunting as a team, each individual killer whale performs a different task. For example, if three killer whales are attacking a whale calf, the killer whales will work together to separate the calf from its mother, after which one killer whale will run interference to keep the mother at bay, one killer whale will repeatedly ram the calf to stun it, and the last killer whale will repeatedly jump on the calf to drown it. The killer whales also endeavor to share risk equally over successive hunts, taking turns at the most dangerous of jobs, which in this example would be warding off the desperate mother and her vicious fluke attacks.

Over the centuries, the killer whales have developed a variety of attack tactics which they continually hone and adapt. Schools of fish are corralled and driven into shallow waters where the can be killed with ease. Seals are herded toward killing grounds at the base of cliffs. Smaller dolphins and porpoises are flipped into the air with a powerful body slam, after which they are momentarily stunned and soon become a tasty snack. Whale calves, runts, and stragglers are systematically isolated from their pods, driven into shallow water where they can't dive, and sometimes even forcibly beached. To attack the largest whales, four or five killer whales will repeatedly ram the whale into a stupor, while two or three will jump on the whale, forcing it down under the water where it can't breathe and drowns. The killer whales are adept at using the environment to their advantage, and are known to lay ambushes at constricted points along migration routes.

Most of these tactics are complicated and have to be taught and learned. Killer whales have been known to prolong attacks on a stunned whale for hours while they repeatedly demonstrate various techniques to the juveniles.

The one seagoing creature the killer whales never attack is human beings. There has never been a single documented case of a killer whale even so much as accidentally attacking a human, unlike those pea-brained sharks that routinely mistake wet-suited surfers for tasty seals. I suppose that shows how smart the killer whales are - they know not to attack the only animal that can kick their tails in a fight. Indeed, the killer whales seem to recognize humans as kindred spirits as fellow scourges of the sea. Amazingly, there have been several documented cases of a wild killer whale coming up to a raft of human whale watchers after a hunt to present a mouthfull of freshly killed fish as a friendly gift.