Orca Hunting Strategies: The Killer Whale's Predation Tactics

killer whale

Photo: slowmotiongli via Getty Images

The Orca or killer whale is a part of the prestigious dolphin family. It is a powerful predator that preys on sea lions, seals, and other whales. Orca is one of the most powerful and feared animals in the ocean.

With an average body length of over 18 feet and a weight of nearly 2,000 pounds, these predators are among the largest members of the mammal family. They are also the major great white shark predators. With a jawbone full of three-inch-long teeth and average speeds of 30mph or 48kph, it is no surprise why they are such great hunters. 

In addition to these evident physical qualities, the Orca's brain size is another outstanding feature, being the second most endowed brain among other aquatic mammals. However, the brain is not just significant for nothing; it comes with an unparalleled intelligence among animals of its size.

Orca hunting strategies can be quite diverse and complex, but they all share one common goal: to kill their prey. These creatures are known for a pretty deceptive hunting technique; they are fond of playing with the prey before they hunt and eat it.

According to observers, Orcas may indulge in this tactic because seals and other prey have sharp claws, which could injure the whales if they involve in a battle. So, rather than risking being hurt, they attack their prey by slapping their flukes and tail fins or with head-on collisions until the victim can't fight back anymore and dies. More on their hunting strategies later.

Orcas are incredibly intelligent, and these killer whales are one of the most powerful aquatic creatures on the earth, according to Scientists. They usually hunt in pods of up to 40 Orcas, enclosing their target and sharing in the meal, making it very tough for prey to escape. 

Orca intelligence isn't surprising, given that it is a very social animal that hunts in collaborative groups. Some of the brightest animals in the world are dogs, elephants, chimps, and humans are also highly social. Because of their sociability and intelligence, killer whale pods have devised novel hunting strategies passed down through multiple generations. The tactics vary from region to region depending on prey types, but they are all evidence of the killer whale's sensitive predatory ingenuity and intelligence.

Orca's true asset is teamwork, which lets them hunt efficiently and safely as a team. So, here are some of the remarkable hunting strategies they have used to whip up their meals.

Wave Washing on Seals

Seals are favorite on the Orcas menu list, especially the Orcas living on the Antarctic ice shelf. By roosting on icecaps, seals stay out of reach. However, Orcas have developed a clever way to slide the seals into the water. 

According to the study, this behavior started with a pod of five to seven orcas collaboratively chipping away at the sides of the ice field, reducing the diameter of the seal's spot and making it impossible to escape. Additionally, the pod often moves the icecap into open water, far away from adjacent ice debris, to increase the likelihood of capturing the seal. 


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Once they sufficiently reduce the floe to a smaller size, the Orcas withdraw to a distance of about 15 meters and then simultaneously swim at maximum speed towards the icecap. The pod ducks underneath the ice at the last moment to create a wave to tip the floe. 

While carrying out this tactic, pods of Orcas are often noticed uttering at an increased rate. It has been observed that these communications may serve to harmonize the pod during the attack. If they fail in the first attempt, this practice is repeated until the seal is lured into the water.

One exciting use of this strategy is that the Orcas don't always kill the seal immediately once it is victoriously washed into the water. During several wave-washing attacks, a pod member grabbed the seal in its mouth and deposited it onto another ice field. It is concluded that this uncommon behavior may serve as social learning, training, or a method of teaching younger Orcas how to execute this technique effectively.

Another likely explanation is that wave washing tactic, and possibly hunting in general, is a medium of play for Orcas. In a nutshell, hunting is not only a way to hunt prey but also for entertainment and socializing. 

Surfing for Seals

In Argentina, Orcas capitalize on the fact that sea lions and elephant seals use the rocky seashores as their birthplace and rear their young. The moms of these newborn pups know better than to let the pups roam into the deeper part of the waters, so the starving orcas have to come to them. 

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These prospecting Orcas swim close to shore, waiting for the proper alignment of the waves, the seals, and the shore, to attack. When the opportunity arises, the Orca surfs a tide onto the shore, seizes a seal or sea lion pup in its teeth, then moves its body and makes another tide to pull it into deeper water. 

In a study of this tactic, none of the observed killer whales were stranded, demonstrating their capability to perform this technique professionally despite risks. One out of every three trials of their attempts was successful.

On some occasions, other co-orcas collaboratively swam behind the hunting Orca on either side, probably as a way of preventing prey from slipping away in either direction. Sometimes, both an adult and a calf were seen stranding themselves in unison. The Orca would toss a seal pup toward the calf, who grabbed it in its mouth. 

The observer suggests that during these endeavors, the adult was teaching the calf this hunting strategy, similar to the New Zealand calves accompanying adults on hunts.

Karate Chop on Sharks

In a contest between Shark and Orca, Who's the Top Predator? the Orca is easily the favorite over sharks. The great white shark, the most giant predatory shark worldwide, has only one wild enemy - the Orca.  

But preying on sharks is a risky adventure for killer whales, with rows of razor-sharp teeth that can pierce through even the thickest whale skin. Consequently, the Orca has devised an efficient way to dislodge these sharp-toothed snack advantages. 

The Orca pushes the shark to the surface of a watery whirlpool using its broad tail. It then turns barely and raises its tail high up in the air, slamming it down on the shark's head. As if it has some biological knowledge of sharks, the Orca turns the shark over, sending her into confusion that observers call "tonic immobility." The shark is now paralyzed, and that makes the shark easy and safe for lunch.

The Carousel on Fish

Small fish like herring isn't even a bite-size meal for Orcas, which makes hunting individual fish worthless. Killer whales of the Norwegian coast avoid such inconveniences of getting in their way when preying.  

Working together, they combine air bubbles and belly flashes to group schools of fish into a closed ball near the water's surface. This churning "bait ball" looks like a rolling carousel, which may have given this approach its name - carousel feeding. The killer whales slap the ball with their tails, attracting the fish and making it easier to gobble down by the mouthful.

Conclusively, there are other hunting strategies the killer whale uses to prey on other aquatic creatures, but these are just a few I can come up with. If you know about other ones, don't hesitate to share them in the comment. Thank you for stopping by!



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