Whales have always held a special fascination for mankind, but despite extensive scientific research dedicated to their biology and habitat, these warm-blooded titans of the ocean still invoke a sense of mystery. Renowned for their resilience and intelligence, our association with the majestic creatures is overwhelmingly positive. It’s no surprise then that dedicated whale watching tours are among the most memorable and sought after wildlife travel experiences on offer.
One popular destination for whale watching tours is northern Norway, where the icy habitat of the fjords provides the opportunity for sightings of multiple species, including Minke, Sperm, pilot and Orca. The latter is one of the world's most powerful apex predators and is actually part of the oceanic dolphin family.
With a diet comprising both large marine mammals and small shoaling fish, the feeding behaviour of Orchinus orca (also known as the Killer Whale) is a fascinating aspect of its ethology. For anyone planning to join one of the dedicated whale watching tours to Norway's Lofoten Islands, the BBC's magnificent nature series Blue Planet II is highly recommended viewing. The Norwegian fjords are one of the very few places left on Earth where it's possible to encounter pods of Orcas. Sir David Attenborough's team have captured unprecedented footage as they hunt for herring in one of Nature's largest feeding frenzies.
Killer Team Work
Killer whales arrive in the Norwegian fjords from November to January, to feed on the huge shoals of herring that have returned to the region in recent years. While enjoying a hugely diverse diet, Orchinus orca is a specialised hunter. Each population around the world has developed specialised techniques to catch suitable prey, with herring comprising the majority of their diet in Norway.
Herrings are extremely fast and agile so the Orcas are not able to feed directly from the shoal. Instead they employ a technique known as "carousel feeding", in which they use vocalisation, air bubbles and a flashing strategy with the white underside of their bodies to round up the shoals of fish into a tight "bait ball" close to the surface of the water. They then perform powerful tail slaps that stun the fish, so they're able to feed on them one by one.
Carousel feeding requires the participation and co-operation of the entire herd. They take turns feeding on the stunned herring, so there are always those "on duty" to maintain the shoal and keep it tightly packed in one area. The Blue Planet II footage of the herring hunt in Norway is some of the most dramatic and compelling of the entire series.
Highly Developed Hunters
Depending on their location around the world, these intelligent apex hunters have developed other specialised techniques that are passed down through multiple generations. These include "wave washing", a co-ordinated charge that creates a large wave onto an ice flow, causing seals to be dumped into the ocean; and the so-called "karate chop" method, where the whale uses its broad tail to drive sharks to the surface of the water before flipping them over on their backs, causing "tonic immobility" and effectively paralysing them.
This highly social marine mammal has one of the largest brains in the natural world and the ability to develop such diverse and ingenious hunting strategies is a testament to their keen intelligence, which is unmatched in any animal of their size.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in whale watching. As a passionate lover of marine wildlife, Marissa chooses the expert-led whale watching tours organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.