Species that feature on the dolphins’ dietary radar have it tough – there are few limits to the imaginative methods these hunters use to secure their meals. “Fish-whacking” is arguably one of the most startling tactics.

Illustrated perfectly in a clip recently released by Michael McCarthy, owner of See Through Canoe, “fish-whacking” or “fish-kicking” is all about timing and accuracy. A dolphin will glide towards a school of fish (mullet in this case, according to McCarthy), dispersing the shoal and creating general panic and confusion. As the fish move to regroup for safety, the dolphin waits for the perfect moment then pivots in a fluid sweep, whipping its tail through the water and batting one of the straggling fish high into the air. Stunned and possibly injured from the blow, the fish is subdued for long enough for the dolphin to scoot over and scoop up its prize.

This is not the first time that McCarthy has filmed the remarkable behaviour. Speaking to National Geographic back in 2019 regarding similar aerial footage, the amateur videographer points out that it’s the most common feeding technique he’s observed among the bottlenose dolphins near his home in Seminole, Florida.

It’s a tactic that has been documented in a number of dolphin species in an array of areas from the US Gulf Coast to New Zealand, Stefanie Gazda, a biologist at the University of Florida explained to National Geographic.

Dolphins have a diverse arsenal of hunting techniques and tricks at their disposal. “Fish-whacking” is just one method that has arisen independently in different dolphin populations across the globe. It seems that a few key individuals practise the fish-flinging behaviour while others may opt for a different approach, explains Shannon Gowans, a behavioral ecologist at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg who has witnessed the fish-whacking technique before. “One dolphin does this, another does that ... This helps reduce competition between individuals, and gives the [fish-punters] an advantage over those doing the same thing as everybody else.”

Although the tail-slapping technique really only benefits a single dolphin, these accomplished hunters are more commonly known to team up when looking for food. Some dolphins populations – like those that take advantage of the feast provided by South Africa’s annual Sardine Run – often work together to corral their prey into smaller shoals or “bait balls”. Once the fish are gathered in a tight cluster, the dolphins take turns plowing through the shoal, picking them off one by one.

“Bait balling” is a technique favoured by dolphins living in the open ocean, but those that prefer to hang out in estuaries and river mouths may develop a different approach. Instead of charging into a school of fish, these shallow-water hunters have been recorded driving them towards the shore, pushing them onto river banks and gobbling up as many as possible before slipping back into the water.

Other groups of dolphins living in shallow water prefer to use mud to snag their meals. Working as a group or on their own, some dolphins in Florida have been documented circling schools of fish, dragging their tails along the sea floor as they go to create a murky whirlpool of churned up sediment. The fish become disorientated in the low visibility and in their attempts to flee the muddy water they inadvertently swim straight into the mouths of dolphins.

Diverse are the techniques of these masterful hunters and there is likely still much we do not know.


Top header image: jumping lab/Flickr