Driving Up




Killer Instinct

Carousel feeding is just one of many inventive methods used by killer whales in different parts of the world when hunting and capturing their prey. From wave washing to beaching, these meticulously coordinated techniques are unique, resourceful, and of course deadly.

In winter waters off the coast of Norway, killer whales work as a team—often in groups of three to nine—to round up herring. Here an orca matriarch leads her pod in separating a group of fish from a larger school and herding it into a ball, one of the first steps in a technique called carousel feeding.

Orcas push the fish ball upward, aiming to trap it against the water’s surface. The killer whales are in constant communication as they circle their prey.

Swimming in fast circles, the orcas tighten the herring ball, making it easier to control and harder for fish to escape. Orcas blow bubbles, flash their white undersides, and slap the surface with their tails (lobtailing) to scare their prey.

The orcas whip their tails sharply into the ball, stunning or killing many fish. (Some herring escape by breaking away and swimming downward.) As the stunned and dead herring drift from the ball, the orcas suck them into their mouths—sometimes several in a row—and then spit out the heads and spines.

A less common hunting technique in these same waters entails herding the fish toward shore and trapping them in the shallows or against the land before feasting.

Fernando G. Baptista and Daniela Santamarina, NGM Staff; Tony Schick. Text: Eve Conant, NGM Staff. Sources: Tiu Similä; Robert Pitman, NOAA; Paolo Domenici, CNR-IAMC, Italy.