What Do Dolphins Eat? (Dolphin Diet & Eating Habits)

Dolphin eating fish

Dolphins are fascinating sea creatures that enjoy a wide variety of food. It is a known fact for everyone that these graceful marine animals are intelligent and curious. But how much do you know about what dolphins eat?

Being toothed whales, dolphins are natural carnivores. Although their diet largely depends on their habitat and species, they mainly eat fish, squid, octopus, shrimp, and jellyfish. Larger dolphin species, such as orcas, are also known to hunt larger sea animals like seals and sharks.

If you want to learn more about the dolphin’s diet, keep reading. This guide covers all essential information about dolphins’ food choices and eating habits, depending on their habitat and species. Let’s start!

What Do Dolphins Eat in the Ocean?

Dolphin eating fish in the ocean

Dolphins have varied diets in the wild. Nonetheless, their food choices mainly depend on their surroundings and species.

Those living near the coast often target invertebrates and fish, while the ones dwelling farther from land are more inclined towards squid and fish. Availability of food also influences the food choice of dolphins.

Here is a quick list of what dolphins commonly eat in the ocean:


  • Mackerel
  • Herring
  • Salmon
  • Anchovies
  • Sardines
  • Eels
  • Cods


  • Squid
  • Shrimp
  • Octopuses
  • Jellyfish
  • Krill (preferred by spinner dolphins)
  • Crabs
  • Sea cucumbers

Orcas or killer whales, the biggest members of the dolphin family, have a wide-ranging diet. Besides fish, they also prey on marine mammals like seals, sea lions, sea birds, sharks, and other Cetacean species.

What Are Dolphins’ Favorite Foods?

Dolphins in diverse aquatic habitats have a varied diet influenced by their surroundings. As active predators, their favorite food ranges widely, but geographical locations often dictate what they prefer to eat.

Fish, especially fatty species like mackerel, herring, and anchovies, are among their top choices. In certain regions, such as Scotland, bottlenose dolphins particularly favor salmon during its seasonal peak.

Squid, despite its lower fat content, is another favorite. Dolphins often consume it in large quantities, especially in regions where it is abundant.

Coastal dolphins typically feast on fish and bottom-dwelling invertebrates, while offshore species prefer fish and squid. Intriguingly, some offshore dolphins dive deep, possibly beyond 500 meters, hunting deep-sea fishes.

How Do Dolphins Get Their Food?

Dolphin catching a fish

Dolphins are adept hunters, utilizing a mix of intelligence and environmental awareness. One of their most impressive abilities is echolocation, where they emit and reflect soundwaves to locate distant prey.

This sonar-like technique gives them an edge in the vast ocean, allowing them to pinpoint even the most elusive prey.

In open waters, bottlenose dolphins rely on teamwork. They surround large schools of fish to corner and compress them. They then take turns feeding by darting through the concentrated school.

Some dolphins exhibit specialized hunting methods. The “pinwheeling” strategy involves dolphins causing splashes to herd fish before making a swift catch.

On one of my research expeditions in California to check the coral diversity, I was lucky to witness dolphins hunting, where they drive fish while their companions block escape routes.

Meanwhile, individual dolphin hunters use “crater feeding,” digging into the ocean floor to find unsuspecting prey, leaving crater-like imprints behind — hence, the technique’s name.

Others maneuver fish into shallow waters, effectively trapping them. Select female bottlenose dolphins have also been observed using sponges as a protective tool while foraging in abrasive terrains.

Opportunistically, some even trail fishing boats, awaiting any discarded catch.

Watch this video to see how bottlenose dolphins hunt in the wild:

Dolphins Take Hunting to the Next Level | Deep Sea Killers

Different Types of Dolphins and Their Diet

More than 40 species of dolphins currently grace the vast oceans, seas, and freshwater habitats. Each species has a unique dietary preference shaped by its habitat, physiology, and available prey.

Let’s explore the diets of some common dolphin species:

  • Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus): Often the star of marine shows due to their intelligence and playfulness, bottlenose dolphins’ diet primarily consists of fish like mackerel, herring, and cod. They also have a fondness for squid.
  • Short-beaked Common Dolphins (Delphinus delphis): Recognized by their striking hourglass pattern on the sides, these dolphins have a diet rich in small schooling fish. Sardines, anchovies, and herrings are their favorites. They also eat squids and octopuses.
  • Spinner Dolphins (Stenella longirostris): Known for their breathtaking aerial spins, spinner dolphins primarily feed at night. Their diet comprises krilles, small fish, and deep-sea squids. They employ echolocation effectively to hunt in the dark depths.
  • Striped Dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba): These dolphins traverse the open oceans, feasting on a diet of small pelagic fish and squids. Their quick, streamlined bodies make them efficient hunters seas.
  • Risso’s Dolphins (Grampus griseus): These dolphins are fascinating with their scarred and scratched appearance, caused by their primary diet: cephalopods. Cephalopods like squids have sharp beaks, and hunting them often leaves the dolphins with marks.
  • Orcas or Killer Whales (Orcinus orca): Not just a dolphin but a superpredator of the oceans, orcas have diverse diets. They might consume fish, seals, sharks, or other marine mammals like whales, depending on their region.
  • Amazon River Dolphins (Inia geoffrensis): Residing in the freshwater habitats of the Amazon, these pinkish dolphins have a diet adapted to riverine conditions. They feed on over 40 species of fish, including piranhas, and will also consume small crustaceans.
  • Chinese White Dolphins (Sousa chinensis): These dolphins inhabit Southeast Asia’s coastal and riverine habitats. They have a varied diet, including fish such as mullets, croakers, shrimp, and squids.
  • Tucuxis (Sotalia fluviatilis): The tucuxi dolphins primarily feast on fish. They prefer catfish, herring, and croakers but eat crustaceans whenever available.
  • Pacific White-sided Dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens): These dolphins inhabit the colder waters of the North Pacific. Their diet includes a mix of small fish like herring and sardines, squids, and octopuses.

As established, the dolphin diet is influenced primarily by their habitat and species. It’s crucial to remember that while these diets are typical for each species, actual consumption can vary based on availability and preferences.

Frequently Asked Questions

Dolphin hunting its food

Do Dolphins Have a Predator?

Yes, dolphins have predators. Despite being skilled swimmers and hunters, Dolphins aren’t always at the top of the food chain. Several larger marine animals see them as potential prey.

The most formidable predator of dolphins, especially the young ones, is the orca or killer whale, also a dolphin. These apex predators can attack even large adult dolphins.

Besides orcas, sharks, particularly great whites, bulls, and tiger sharks, sometimes prey on dolphins.

However, dolphins often display tactics to avoid or confront these threats, such as swimming in groups and using their speed to evade capture.

Do Dolphins Eat Apples?

Dolphins don’t naturally eat apples in the wild. Their primary diet includes fish and squid. While some dolphins in captivity might try foods like apples out of curiosity, it’s not typical or necessarily safe. It’s best to give dolphins foods that are part of their natural diet.

Do Dolphins Eat Plants?

Dolphins are carnivores and mainly eat fish and squid. They don’t eat plants for food. Even if they play with seaweed, they don’t eat it.

Feeding plants or non-meat-based foods to dolphins can be harmful, as these aren’t part of their natural diet. 

Do Dolphins Eat Humans?

Dolphins are not known to eat humans. They mainly feed on fish and squid. While there are some reports of dolphins being aggressive towards humans, these instances are rare and not related to feeding.

Some people have been injured when interacting with dolphins in the wild or captivity, but these are not cases of dolphins trying to eat humans. Instead, it might signify stress, confusion, or territorial behavior. 

Final Thoughts

Dolphins are fascinating creatures with diverse eating habits tailored to their environments and species-specific needs.

From the vast array of fish and squid they devour to the impressive hunting techniques they employ, their diet and feeding behaviors are a testament to their intelligence and adaptability.

It’s crucial to respect their natural habitats and ensure their conservation for future generations. Hopefully, knowing what dolphins eat has deepened your understanding and care for these beloved creatures.

Do you have other questions or cool facts about dolphins and their diet? Share them in the comments below! We’d love to hear from you.

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