What Do Whales Eat?

Whales hunt for food using a variety of techniques; and not all species of whale will hunt or attack their prey in the same way.

Depending on the whales size, social structure, environment, species and type (baleen or toothed) their diets can change drastically from small aquatic life forms such as fish, shrimp, larvae, plankton, crabs, krill and squid to larger marine mammals (which are generally consumed by killer whales) such as sea lions, walruses, seals, sharks, seabirds and even large whales.

One ability some whales use when hunting for food is known as echolocation.

The way echolocation works is by sending out a series of clicking and busing noises and listening to the sounds that bounce off of objects in the area (such as fish or other aquatic life forms).

The amount of time it takes the sounds to return to the whale can indicate vital information such as how far objects are, what type of texture it is (hard or soft), and whether or not the object is moving or still.

Whales will continue to create these sounds until they find the prey they are looking for and then hunt and attack their prey for food.

Echolocation is also useful for navigating the ocean in dark environments as the echoing sounds can help the whale determine where various objects are so that it can avoid collision with them.

Baleen whales

Baleen whales hunt for food using a technique known as filter feeding in which they swim around with their mouths open and filter food through their baleen (which often resembles the teeth found on a comb).

The baleen bristles act like a filter by allowing water to escape while being packed tightly enough to prevent their prey from getting out.

Bottom feeding

Gray whales are unique to the species because they are one of the only whales that consistently eat from the bottom of the ocean.

In order to obtain food these whales will swim to the bottom of the ocean and role on their side; causing the water to lift up various sea sediments and prey.

These whales will eat everything that comes up from crabs and larvae to plankton and small fish.

Gray whales are very large and can consume in excess of 3,000 pounds of food on a daily basis.

Some observers state that the gray whale can eat in excess of 4,500 pounds daily.

Humpback whales use a hunting technique that is unique to any other mammal in its species known as bubble netting or lunge netting.

Bubble or lunge netting takes a group effort and each whale plays a specific role in capturing fish.

Some whales will swims around the fish (these whales tend to enjoy eating herring) and blow bubbles which causes the fish to form into a group, while other whales make loud noises scaring the fish and causing them to move towards the surface of the water.

Once the fish move to the surface they lunge towards the fish with their mouths open and try to eat as many as they possibly can.

Toothed whales

Toothed whales are active hunters and some are known to eat larger forms of prey than baleen whales.

They will eat fish, squid, octopus and various crustaceans while species such as the killer whale will hunt and consume various marine mammals, seabirds and even whales.

The orca (killer whale) hunts in groups and are often referred to as the wolves of the sea due to the fact that when they hunt for food they resemble a pack of wolves.

Orca eat a large variety of foods such as fish, squid, sea lions, walruses, seals, sharks and even large whales and are considered to be at the top of the food chain in the aquatic realm since they have no real predators.

They are also extremely social and travel in groups known as pods.

Orca are known for maintaining strong family ties and can spend their entire lives together rarely separating from one another except when they mate and forage for food.

The sperm whale (the largest of the toothed whales) typically prefer a diet containing octopus, large squid and some fish.

These whales are able to dive over 3,000 feet underwater and remain submerged for over an hour when hunting for prey.

It is estimated that sperm whales eat in excess of 220 billion pounds of squid per year.

When observed circular marks can be found on and around the whale’s head from confrontations with octopus and squid latching on to its head in an attempt to keep from being eaten.

When compared to the orca (which are very socially structured), sperm whales live solitary lives often leaving pods to travel alone or move to other small pods.

Unfortunately not much information is known as to how sperm whales hunt for squid due to the sperm whales deep diving excursions, which makes it difficult for scientist and marine biologist to effectively study their hunting methods.

Baleen whale diet

Baleen whales tend to eat small manageable prey since they swallow their food whole and consume large quantities of small prey:

  • Fish
  • Krill
  • Squid
  • Octopus
  • Larve
  • Small crabs
  • Various crustaceans

Toothed whale diet

Toothed whales also consume small prey however some species have a larger more diverse diet:

  • Fish
  • Squid (sperm whales hunt giant squid)
  • Octopus
  • Crabs
  • Whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions, walruses, seabirds and sharks (eaten by certain groups of killer whales)

Conclusion

Not all whales eat the same types of food.

Location, climate, marine life, social structure and species of whale all play a role in what types of food whales eat.

Some species are equipped with echolocation which allows them to measure the distance, location, density and type of food they are hunting as well as navigate the ocean.

And some whales will hunt in large cooperative groups while others are solitary animals that hunt their prey alone or in small pods.