Killer whales, also known as orcas, are not actually whales at all – they’re dolphins. What isn’t misleading about their name is the killer part, because while they are beautiful and majestic creatures, they are also some of the smartest and most ferocious predators in the world. The good news is that while orcas have been known to hurt and kill people while living in captivity, there are no recorded cases of orcas killing humans in the wild. So while they are vicious hunters, humans are incredibly safe from them, as long as the orcas remain in the wild. As for the other creatures in the sea, well, take a look at these videos and you’ll get a sense of why these are some of the most lethal hunters in the ocean.
10. Carousel Feeding
To sustain an adult orca, they need to eat the equivalent of three sea lions every day. Therefore, hunting down a fish here or there is just a waste of time and energy. But a specific group of orcas in Norway feed on schools of fish through a unique process called “carousel feeding.”
A pod will circle around a school of herring, but since the herring are still too fast, the orcas smack the fish on the outside of the herded up school and then they eat the stunned fish. Amazingly, the orcas take turns feeding while the other orcas ensure the school stays together.
9. Pack Hunters
One of the biggest advantages that killer whales have over other marine life is that orcas usually live and hunt in groups called pods. This is how they got their nickname, “the Wolves of the Sea.” Often while hunting, orcas will organize themselves and move strategically to surround their prey and force it towards the shore. This limits the amount of room the prey has to maneuver.
Then, once the prey is in shallow water, it makes it easier for orcas to kill due to their sheer strength. In the video above, you can see the whales performing this tactic on a group of narwhal whales in the Arctic. After pinning the narwhals in shallow water, the pod of 20 orcas devour the narwhals.
8. Patient and Methodical
In the ocean there are plenty of animals for killer whales to feast on, but they also have a taste for birds as well. In this video, which was recorded at SeaWorld, the orca, Kalia, patiently waits at the edge of the pool close to where some birds have landed.
She almost looks playful with her mouth open, but as soon as a bird gets too close to the open mouth, Kalia lunges and drags the bird into the water where it is drowned. Once the bird is dead, the treat is shared among Kalia and the other orcas in the pool.
7. Not Even Dolphins are Safe
As we mentioned in the opening, killer whales are members of the dolphin family, yet not even dolphins are safe from these terrifying predators. One such attack was witnessed and recorded by people on the shore and on a ferry in Nanaimo’s Departure Bay in British Colombia, Canada.
At first people saw a bunch of bottlenose dolphins swimming fast towards the shore and before long, people realized that the dolphins were being chased by a pod of eight or nine killer whales. The orcas ended up killing and eating two dolphins before swimming away.
6. Trained Risk Takers
One of the orcas’ biggest advantages in hunting is their size. On average, they are 23 to 32 feet long and weigh about six tons. Just for some perspective, that is about the size of a school bus. So it would make sense that if animals wanted to avoid becoming a meal, they just need to get away from the ocean waters and hide out in something like rocky alcoves. The problem is that orcas can be crafty and they will take risks if it means they’ll eat.
In this video, a mother orca is training her calf to move through a shallow canal in the reef that leads to a deeper pool where there are some elephant seals. She has to time her visit to the pool correctly, because if she is still there when the tide goes out, she’ll be stranded on the reef and will die. Once inside the deeper pool, the orca patiently waits and stalks the elephant seals that stay safe by staying in the shallow water. Once a younger seals slips out into deeper water, the mother whale pounces and drags it out of the pool into the open water, providing food for herself and her calf. Many mother orcas spend up to a year training their calves to hunt.
5. Can Attack on the Shore
One way for prey to avoid being eaten by orcas is simply to get out of the water. After all, the biggest limitation of orcas is that they hunt in the water and their bodies aren’t designed to go on land. The problem is that orcas can even attack animals when they are on shore. In this clip, recorded off the coast of Argentina, two male adult orcas are scouting sea lion pups on the beach’s shore. At low tide, the sea lions are safe, but once the tide starts to rise, the orcas move in.
They lunge onto the shore; sometimes they grab a seal, other times they don’t, but regardless, they push themselves back into the water after the lunge. In the video, the orcas flip and throw the still living seal they caught through the water. While it may look like they are playing, researchers believe the orcas are training for more difficult hunts in the future.
4. Shark Hunters
In most oceans, orcas are apex predators. That means they are at the top of the food chain, so not even something like sharks will hunt them. Instead, orcas hunt sharks. In this video, taken by an underwater photographer and marine biologist, it shows three orcas attacking a 7-foot-long tiger shark. The orcas flip the shark so that it is floating with its belly towards the surface.
This puts the shark into a state of paralysis known as tonic immobility. Once the shark is immobilized, the orcas take turns stripping the body of any meat, leaving only skeletal remains and the head before swimming off.
3. They’re Diabolical
One of the most diabolical and clever ways that pods of orcas hunt was captured in the video above by naturalists and guests on a National Geographic Expeditions cruise in Antarctica. On a drifting piece of ice is a seal and the pod works together in coordinated attacks to make waves that are meant to sweep the seal off the ice.
The orcas will even move the piece of ice to be in a better position for the wave to knock off the seal.
2. They Drown Whales
We understand that drowning a whale may sound impossible, but whales are mammals so they need to get their oxygen from the air. Killer whales are aware of this, so when they hunt, they have been known to prevent whales from reaching the surface and they even go as far as blocking the whale’s blowholes with their body. This is exactly what happens in the video above from BBC Earth that was recorded in 2012.
In it, a mother and baby gray whale are hunted by a pod of killer whales that were able to track them because the orcas heard their breathing. The orcas separate the mother and calf, and once they have the calf alone, they simply keep the calf down as long as possible and ensure that the blowhole never reaches the surface. Once the calf is dead, the orcas feast.
The anatomy of the Great White shark makes them efficient and effective killing machines. On average, they are 15 feet long and weigh up to 5,000 pounds. They have around 300 serrated teeth that are situated in seven rows. In short bursts, they can reach speeds of 25 miles per hour. Yet, despite all of this, they do have one natural predator – orcas.
There are a few recorded incidents of people witnessing orcas killing Great White sharks and one of them happened on the coast of San Francisco in 1997. Biologists were whale watching and witnessed two orcas kill a lion seal. Perhaps attracted by the blood, a Great White approached the boat. One of the killer whales noticed the great white and moved in the direction of the shark. They both dove under the water and the killer whale emerged with the shark in its mouth. The shark was inverted, meaning it was suffering from tonic immobility. The killer whale held the shark upside down for about 15 minutes before the orca ate the liver and left the shark’s carcass to be eaten by the birds.
Another case of orcas taking on a Great White happened on February 2, 2015, off the coast of the Neptune Islands in Australia, which was captured in the video above. Crew and guests aboard the boat, The Shark Warrior, watched as a pod of orcas swarmed a Great White near the surface of the water. The orcas would hurt the Great White by launching themselves out on the water and crashing down on the shark. The weakened shark was then dragged below the surface and killed. After the orcas killed the shark, it caused other Great Whites to leave the area.