What Do Whales Eat?

When it comes to survival few things are as important as shelter, rest and food.

For marine mammals such as whales food is not only extremely important for their survival it’s also important for maintaining balance in the oceans ecosystem.

In order for whales to capture their food these marine mammals search and hunt for their prey using a variety of techniques so that they can locate, isolate and immobilize their prey for easy consumption.

And because their are 80 – 90 different animals within the cetacean family not all species of whale 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 and false killer whales) such as sea lions, walruses, seals, sharks, seabirds and even large whales.

One of the most useful abilities whales use when hunting for food is known as echolocation.

Echolocation works by emitting a series of clicking and busing noises and then listening to the echos that bounce off of objects in the area (such as fish or other aquatic life forms).

The amount of time it takes the echo to return to the whale can provide these marine mammals vital information such as how far the object is, how dense it is (hard or soft), and whether or not the object is moving or still.

By using echolocation whales are able to determine whether the object is prey, a predator or an inanimate object.

Whales will continue to create these sounds until they find the prey they are looking for and then decide the best method for hunting and attacking their prey.

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

Since echolocation rely’s heavily on sound these marine mammals do not have to use their eyes when they are traveling or searching for prey.

In fact echolocation can be thought of as a highly advanced version of sonar that not only displays where a single object is in relation to the host but also provides highly detailed information about all of the objects in the area in a somewhat three dimensional way.

Baleen whales

Whale Showing Baleen IllustrationBaleen 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 bristles (which often resemble 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.

Depending on the species baleen whales may use a number of different hunting methods to capture their prey.

One of these methods may include simply swimming towards their prey with their mouth open while capturing their prey in the baleen bristles then pushing the water out with its tongue.

Another method that is used by baleen whales is to have several whales circle around a group or swarm of fish and blows bubbles from around and underneath the fish in order to herd them into a ball and push them towards the surface.

Once this is done the whales can take turns swimming through the helpless swarm and pick off the fish one at a time.

Baleen whales may choose to hunt for food alone or as a group depending on their species and the pod they belong to.

Bottom feeding and bubble netting

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

Killer Whale Hunting Seal IllustrationToothed 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 prefers 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
  • Various benthic animals

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
  • Marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and porpoises (eaten by certain groups of killer whales)
  • Other marine animals including seals, sea lions, walruses, seabirds and sharks (eaten by certain groups of killer whales)

Conclusion

Not all whales eat the same types of food and the hunting methods they use to capture their prey various from one species/pod to the next.
Location, climate, marine life, social structure and the whales species all play a role in what types of food a whale eats.

Some species are equipped with echolocation which allows them to measure the distance, location, density and types 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.