Just what do dolphins eat? In the Army you are told, “If it moves, salute it, it doesn’t move, paint it”. Applied to the dolphin, the saying might be “If it swims, eat it”. That’s not to say the dolphin will eat anything, and since it swallows its food whole, certainly not anything too large. It will also eat some things which don’t spend much time, if any time, swimming, such as crabs, mollusks, and other shell fish.
The answer to, “what do dolphins eat?” depends somewhat upon the species, and there are a number of them, as well as where the dolphins are situated at a particular time. The dolphin could be described as an opportunistic feeder. A dolphin will hunt, usually in groups, but does not always seek a specific type of fish for its dinner. It eats what’s available, and eats lots of it. A 400 to 500 pound dolphin will eat 25 to 60 pounds of fish per day, and in some cases even more. Consequently, dolphins spend much of there time migrating from one feeding ground to another, as their appetites can quickly deplete a given feeding ground.
From Plankton to 12 Pounders – What size fish do dolphins eat? Since they swallow their food whole, the maximum size of fish that a dolphin can easily handle weighs in the neighborhood of 12 pounds. Dolphins eat much smaller fish most of the time, and some species even feed on plankton. Except for a few species we observe quite frequently, we don’t know too much about the dolphin’s feeding habits. Most species eat in deep water, in private if you will, and it is mainly through investigating the contents in the stomachs of some these species, that we get any clue as to what they eat.
Fat Fish Are Best – When first responding to the question ‘What do dolphins eat?’, the statement was made that they don’t seek out any specific type of fish while on the hunt. That is true, but the dolphin does have its preferences. Fish that contain plenty of fat, such as herring, mackerel, and cod, would top the list. The Orca, or Killer Whale, which is actually a member of the dolphin family, claims the Pacific salmon as its food of choice. Most species of dolphin rely on squid to make up a large part of their diet. The squid however, does not have the fat content that many fish do, which means that the dolphin has to eat many more of them.
How The Dolphin Gets Its Prey – Besides simply snapping up a fish that has strayed too close, the dolphin relies one or more of three methods to catch its prey. It will sometimes swat at fish with its tail, especially larger fish, stunning them in the process, and making them an easy catch. Dolphins often hunt in groups or packs. In doing so they will cooperate in corralling fish, driving them into the shallows, where they are easier to catch. Dolphins are also very good at herding, being a kind of aquatic Border collie. A group of dolphins will circle a school of fish, herding them into a dense mass, and then take turns swimming through the mass, eating as many fish as they can catch in each pass.
There are even stories of dolphins cooperating with human fisherman, to round up a school of fish and share the spoils, or simply to let the human fisherman know where the fish are located. On the other side of the coin, dolphins have been known to raid fishermen’s nets, making off with a few, or some times many, fish. Being the extremely intelligent creature it is, stories like this are not hard to believe. Dolphins often travel with others of their species as well as whales, and in the process, coordinate feeding activities.
Freshwater dolphins would be expected to have feeding habits somewhat different than there saltwater cousins, but not really too different. For all the species of dolphins that exist, the short and reasonably accurate answer to “What do dolphins eat?” would be – fish and squid.