Teamwork Makes the Dream Work: Cooperative Hunting in Killer Whales

May 1, 2023


Now that I’ve got that out of my system, it’s time for more deleted scenes – cool stuff that didn’t make it into the book. 

Polar is about animal adaptations – the behaviours, body parts, and body functions that help animals survive in extreme habitats. Each spread pairs two animal species – one in the Arctic and one in Antarctica – that are using the same adaptation in different ways or in different seasons. But there are some animal species that live in both the Arctic and Antarctica. Arctic terns are one – in their case, the same individual birds occupy both habitats at different times of year.*

Orcas (killer whales) are another. In their case, however, different populations of orcas inhabit each polar sea, and as far as I was able to discover, each population pretty much sticks to its own hemisphere. Because of this isolation, Arctic and Antarctic orcas are genetically distinct. They are also culturally distinct: they speak different dialects and have developed different hunting strategies for taking different types of prey. Senior orcas teach their specialized hunting techniques to the young in their communities, passing their knowledge and experience to the next generation.

This is the coolest thing ever, and I wanted to include a spread contrasting the behaviours of Arctic and Antarctic orcas in the book. But the process of training young orcas can be a bit brutal for the poor prey, and my editor was concerned the hunting scenes might be a bit mature for the book’s target audience. If you fell in love with walruses in my earlier post, you may feel the same way. In that case, I recommend finding a copy of Kilroy and the Gull by Nathaniel Benchley, a book about an orca calf who’s captured and sent to an aquarium, but later escapes with the help of his friend Morris the seagull. I LOVED this book as a kid, and it’s a lot less “nature red in tooth and claw” than this blog is about to get.

BUT. If you think orcas are awesome and everybody’s gotta eat – this post is for you. So here we go: unpolished text from my first draft of Polar: Wildlife at the Ends of the Earth.

Cooperative Hunting and Social Learning

Some predators hunt alone; killer whales prefer to work in teams. Cooperative hunting makes bringing down large prey, like minke whales, both safer and easier. Killer whales live in both Arctic and Antarctic waters. They form long-lasting social groups, allowing adults to teach important hunting strategies to the young. Different groups of whales use different, but equally adaptive, techniques.


A dozen walruses float on the Chukchi Sea, unaware of danger until the killer whales charge. Panic! As walruses flee for shore, the whales carousel, cutting one off from the group. Normally, they would kill it quickly and efficiently. But there’s a calf in the pod, and she must learn. When the group finds prey in the vast, ever-changing ocean, she’ll need to know what to do.

Her mother swirls around the walrus, stunning it with her fluke. A cousin darts in, demonstrating the same strike. It’s the calf’s turn, but she misses. The walrus bobs to the surface, and she backs away, making room. Her mother rears up, using the weight of her falling body to push the walrus under. The whale calf isn’t heavy enough to do this, but she will be someday. For now, she pays attention until the lesson ends and it’s time for her entire family to eat.


Ice floes bump and drift. Between them, killer whales spy hop, scouting for seals. There, on the largest floe. The pod swims away, then turns back. Side-by-side, they charge, flukes pumping in sync, building a wave. At the last second, they dive under the floe, rolling to protect their dorsal fins. Their wave breaks beneath the ice, shattering it into pieces. The seal tumbles into the sea.

Splashing and snarling, he tries to climb onto one of the fragments. But these whales are experienced hunters. With her teeth, a young adult grasps the seal’s hind flippers, tugging him into the water. Whales circle as he stands on his head, waving those vulnerable flippers in the air. Then the seal feints, darts, and breaks through the ring of teeth. Struggling, he hauls himself onto a bergy bit**—a rough chunk of glacial ice too heavy for the whales to topple. The pod swims away, searching for easier prey.

*More info on Arctic terns is coming on May 13 – World Migratory Bird Day. Stay tuned!

**Showing my Canadian here – “bergy bit” is an absolutely delightful term that Newfoundlanders use for small chunks of melting icebergs. They are also delicious in cocktails.

Polar: Wildlife At the Ends of the Earth comes out TOMORROW! EEK! Order a copy from your local independent bookstore to reduce your carbon footprint AND support a cornerstone of your community. You can also order from your favourite online retailer.

Don’t forget to check my Public Appearances page for Polar virtual events and live events happening near you. Are you a teacher or librarian? I’m available for author visits in May and June – contact me to secure your spot.  

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