Captain’s Blog

Why is it So Hard to Watch Killer Whales Hunting?

August 30, 2016

The slight fluttering of the water’s surface is always a dead giveaway. At first you tremble with excitement as you realize what’s currently happening, but then, more often than not, you cringe in terror from what’s about to happen.

Killer whales hunting in the wild is one of our planet’s most powerful scenarios, and it’s one we witness often on the deck of an Orca Spirit boat. Conflicted reactions are common.

The urge to join a whale watching adventure isn’t normally caused by a desire to watch the results of a killer whale’s hunting techniques.  Surely few among us crave a violent end to a cute n’ cuddly seal.

Watch an orca whale feeding frenzy near the Dodd Narrows on Vancouver Island.

But that’s what orcas do. They’re called killer whales for reason.

Transients vs Residents Orcas of BC’s Coast

The first thing to understand is that not all orca whales hunt in the same manner. The killer whales you see tossing seals into the air are called transient orcas, which are a distinct ecotype of the species. Transients hunt mammals – from seals and sea lions to dolphins and other whales. Transient orcas use stealth and teamwork to stalk their prey.

Resident orcas, on the other hand, stick mostly with salmon, other fish and the occasional squid as staples in their diets. When you’re on a boat and you hear an orca’s call, it’s normally the residents, because they aren’t worried about scaring anything off.

Killer Whale Hunters & the Value of the Food Chain

The alternative to transient killer whales hunting and devouring their prey is pretty stark: starvation. Now, this is normally not a problem for arguably the world’s most feared apex predator, but it’s important to remember why the orca hunts as it does.

When it comes to transient orcas in particular, hunting techniques are used to great effect to find and capture prey. While the feeding patterns and locations of resident orcas are fairly easy to predict, the coordinated efforts of the transient killer whales is much more elusive.

Skilled Prey

One reason it can be difficult to watch transient killer whales on the hunt is that they aren’t after insects or small fish – no, transients eat larger mammals and they eat smart mammals.

According to OrcaLab, a transient orca’s prey has keenly adapted senses and skills to help them avoid a terrifying brush with the fearsome predator.

Look, most human beings are naturally sympathetic to the lives of other intelligent creatures, right? We hope so – the more sympathy we have for marine animals, the fewer we’ll see locked away in aquariums. So of course we’d rather not watch a seal experience the horrible last moments of its life.

However, that’s simply the harsh reality of the food chain.

Feeding in Captivity

And I can tell you with certainty, watching a full grown killer whale gulp down small fish tossed into its mouth from the dock of a tank is far more disturbing than watching a wild hunt in progress. Some scientists believe killer whales play with their food before they eat it for the sheer joy of the hunt and the companionship the experience creates.

In captivity, joy is nowhere to be found. Killer whales were built to slide effortlessly through the ocean’s cold waters in search of their next meal. Both physically as well as mentally, these great creatures have evolved into nature’s most efficient eating, and killing, machines.

It can be hard to watch. But it’s equally hard to tear your eyes away.

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