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Humpback Whale Feeding Techniques

Baleen Whales
The large whales including: Humpback, Finback, Minke, Blue, and Right Whales feed on very tiny fish. Obviously a 37 ton whale needs to eat a lot of little fish every day and they can't catch them one by one. Just like human fishermen they need a net or strainer to pull through the water concentrating the fish.

Whales use their mouth as a giant strainer. The upper jaw of the Humpback Whale is lined with bony plates called baleen that hang vertically like vertical blinds. The spaces between the plates are small allowing water to pass through, but not the food. The throat skin is pleated (except in Right Whales) and can expand to hold water and prey. The whale swims through the schools of fish with its mouth open taking in both fish and water. The throat pleats expand to make more room. Then the whale closes its mouth and pushes the water out through the baleen plates trapping the fish inside to be swallowed.

In the above photograph you can just see a hint of the baleen plates that hang from the upper jaw.

In this picture taken by Peter Trull you can again see the baleen plates on the upper jaw. The birds are here for anything that falls out.

Leonard Medlock Humpback Whale head with mouth closed.

Leonard Medlock photo of Humpback Whale with distended throat groves  full of water and fish.

Bubble Feeding
Whales use different tactics to catch fish. On of the most interesting ways they feed is to use a cloud of bubbles to concentrate the prey. The whale or whales swim underwater releasing clouds of bubbles that rise to the surface in a dense cloud. Perhaps the tiny fish try to hide in the cloud of bubbles or maybe the bubbles just confuse the fish. The whale then swims through the bubble clouds catching the fish. The Humpback Whales of the Gulf of Maine are very practiced in this behavior.  Whale watchers from Australia told me they had never witnessed this feeding method.

In the picture above, several whales are under the water. One or more is releasing the clouds of bubbles which you can see on the surface as rings. The birds seem to know something is coming because they are congregating over the bubbles.

Two whales have swum through the bubbles with their mouths open.  They are now at the surface closing their jaws to trap the fish. A few fish will escape and so here come the birds for their share. These pictures were taken by Emmalee Tarry from a whale watching boat on the south end of Stellwagen Bank.