Do Whales live in Groups? How do Groups of Whales Behave?

Written by Cindy Rasmussen
Published: November 23, 2021


In the spring of 2021 a video of a thousand dolphins swimming together was filmed off the coast of California. A group of whale watchers were entertained for hours while this group of dolphins frolicked in the ocean waters. A group this size is larger than normally seen but not that rare.  Dolphins generally live in pods of 5-20 dolphins, but these smaller pods will often come together with other pods to form larger pods for feeding or mating. Dolphins are one species that pod life has been extensively studied, but what other whales live in pods? Are whales social creatures or do some prefer to live alone? Do any whales form pods with other whales outside their species? Why do some whales live in pods? Let’s take a look at the pod life!

What is a group of whales called?

What do whales eat - a pod of humbacks feeding
A group of whales feeding together. Humpback whales form pods during migrations

A group of whales is known as a “pod.” Other terms used for groups of whales are a “gam” and “school,” but pod is by far the most common name.

The term “pod” refers to a group of animals living together. In general smaller animals are more likely than larger animals to form pods. The whale group Cetacea is divided into two suborders, Baleen whales (Mysticeti) and Toothed whales (Odontceti). Baleen whales are the largest whales, largest mammals on Earth actually, and toothed whales are significantly smaller and include dolphins, porpoises and belugas. So it makes sense that most baleen whales are solitary animals that come together only to mate and most toothed whales live in pods ranging in size from 2-50 with pods coming together to form larger pods at times. There are exceptions to these guidelines with some baleen whales consistently seen in pods of 3, like the Sei whales and some like the humpback whales that form pods during migration. There are some species of toothed whales, like the Amazon River dolphin that is a solitary animal and only get together to mate.

Why do dolphins live in pods?

Group of Whales - pod-of-long-beaked-common-dolphins
A pod of dolphins bursts out of the water

Dolphins provide a good example of what pod life is like, they are also one of the most researched marine animal providing years of data over the years. The common bottlenose dolphin is one of the dolphins that have been studied and these dolphins can commonly be found in groups of 2-50, forming larger pods as well. These smaller pods are sometimes referred to as nursery groups because it is comprised of a group of females dolphins and their calves. The mothers teach their young to hunt, find food, avoid predators and they nurture their young ones. The baby dolphins will stay close to their mothers for 3-6 years.

Dolphins from smaller pods will join together with other pods for hunting and protection. A typical hunt may look like a group of 400 dolphins spread out in the same area foraging for food and also watching out for predators. They feed on prey that often congregate in schools, like squid, anchovies, and sardines. When they find a school of potential prey the dolphins will start to swim closer together and then encircle the prey and begin an attack. If a group of dolphins encounters a group of killer whales (their predators) they will immediately form a tight group and try to flee together, with the younger dolphins learning to stay with the group.

Another reason dolphins may form pods is because they are very social animals. They use a combination of clicks and whistles to communicate with each other and they are able to teach each other. One group of dolphins uses sponges on their beaks as protection when they dig for food in the sand. Young dolphins learn how to do this by watching their mothers. Dolphins in zoos and aquariums have been able to be trained to do a variety of skills and tricks and seem to be very social with their trainers.  With their beaks that seem to always be smiling it is no wonder that we have a fascination with these water wonders.

Do humpback whales form pods to migrate?

mother and baby humpback whale swimming together
Mother and baby humpback whale swimming together

Humpback whales migrate to warmer waters during the winter. Whales from the northern hemisphere will make their way to the warm waters off Hawaii and whales from the southern hemisphere migrate to eastern Australia. One research study followed humpback whale’s migration over a period of two years, following both the northward and southward movement. These whales were congregating off the east coast of Australia. The result of the study was that they found the majority of the whales paired up, male-female, for the long migration. Of all of the whales the study found, “231 singletons, 257 pairs, 63 trios, 7 quads and 4 pods containing more than 5 individuals were observed during two land-based surveys carried out throughout the northward migration in 1991 and 1993.” So there was some variety, with a large group of whales making a solo trek and a group that preferred to travel in threes. Whales that are pods of three are often identified as a female, her calf and an escort or mate-guard. The large number of whales that make the migration paired is thought to be mating related, like a Honeymoon in Hawaii!

What is a competition pod?

Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) breaching at Puerto Lopez, Ecuador.
A humpback breaching

Whale watchers can travel to Maui between December and April or to eastern Australia between May and November to watch a spectacular display of the whale mating season. A group of male humpback whales will form a completion pod of 3-25 whales that are eager to pursue a female whale. They jockey to get close to the female to either overtake her male escort or win the right to mate with her. The female and her escort remain in the center of the group and the escort tries to defend himself to remain with the female. Whales can be observed slapping the water with their tails (flukes) slapping each other with their tails, bumping heads and racing quickly in pursuit of a female. During the competition whales may lose interest and leave or other whales may be enticed by the action and join in. The action can last for a few hours until a “winner” is determined.

Do killer whales hunt in pods like a pack of wolves?

Fastest Sea Animal: Killer Whale
The Orca are the largest of the dolphins and are very intelligent animals.

Killer whales seem to have an advanced social structure with pods forming based on the type of diet they prefer. In the Pacific Northwest, killer whales (or orcas) form pods of 2-50 whales and they do hunt together like a pack of wolves. Researchers have found that killer whales tend to either be residential, meaning they live and hunt in the same area, or transient traveling around to find the food according to availability. The group of residential whales is fish eaters and they hunt for fish like salmon. The other group hunts for marine mammals like sea lions, walruses and seals. A producer on the TV show Frozen Planet on BBC Earth showed video of a group of killer whales working together to knock a seal off of its floating ice float. Four or five whales swam together under the ice to create a wave that knocked the seal into the water! Dinner is served!

Killer whales are very intelligent and have a variety of techniques to capture their prey. They have learned to even attack sharks. Some of the group will force the shark to the surface and another one will use their tail to slap the shark and then flip them over making them more vulnerable. They then can use their sharp teeth to tear into the shark for dinner.

Did a group of belugas “adopt” a narwhal?

Animals That Use Sonar-Beluga whale
Mother and baby Beluga whale swimming together. Toothed whales use echolocation to navigate in murky water with low visibility.

One story from the Smithsonian Magazine reports that a lone narwhal was sighted swimming with a group of belugas. Researchers were studying the beluga group by using drones as surveillance. The scientists have video of a narwhal swimming with a pod of 11-12 belugas. It is believed that they are all juvenile males. The markings on the narwhal indicate that it is the same one that has been observed with this group before over a span of three years. Another interesting twist is that the narwhals typically live nowhere near these belugas with his home waters being 600 miles north of the St. Lawrence River where these belugas are. Belugas and narwhals do belong to the same family (Monodontidae), but don’t typically cross paths because the narwhals live in the arctic waters. Belugas are very social animals and seem to stick together. Researches have tracked the same beluga pods of related whales spending the summers together at the same location year after year. Sometimes more than a thousand belugas will gather in the same waters off the shore.

Do narwhals live in pods?

narwhals swimming together
A narwhal’s horn is actually a tooth!

Narwhals are a bit trickier to study due to the fact they live in the icy arctic waters and rarely come close to shore. These whales look like dark colored belugas with their most pronounced feature being a unicorn-like horn (it is actually a tooth) coming out of their face area (just the males). Their bodies can grow to be 12-20 feet long and their horn-like tooth can be up to 10 feet long! They are a social animal and live in pods of 2-20 whales and they often join pods together to from large groups of up to a few hundred. The pods vary and can be a group of males, a group of females or a mixed group. Narwhals do migrate and spend time in the same wintering and summering waters. They migrate together in large groups and can be seen leaping out of the water together and diving at the same time like some kind of elaborate synchronized swimming team!