Bubble Net Feeding: A Humpback's Special Skill

08-29-2019

By Andrew Mountsier, Expedition Guide on the Legacy

As the summer is nearing the end, one of the grandest spectacles is becoming more and more common - collaborative feeding between our North Pacific Humpback Whales. Collaborative feeding, also known as bubble net feeding, involves many humpbacks working in tandem in order to corral small fish and zooplankton into one area so that they may eat as many as possible in one mouthful.  

It requires specialized skills from numerous whales. Some whales are the conductors of the group, singing and letting the other whales know where to go and when to utilize their skills.  Some whales are diving under the fish, swimming around them in a circle, starting out large and then spiraling in as the circles get smaller and smaller. The humpbacks breathe out slowly in order to “trap” the fish inside their net of bubbles.  Other Humpbacks swim alongside the “nets” and flash the brilliant white of the underside of their wings further directing the prey into this net. 

With all these humpbacks working together, they group the fish into a small area near the surface. Our humpbacks lunge forwards, scooping all the water into their large mouths with their pleated throats, expanding to hold 5,000 gallons of water, equivalent to one lane’s worth of water in an Olympic sized swimming pool. With their mouth now closed, they push out all that water through their baleen, leaving their prey behind for them to swallow. 

Our humpbacks have learned this behavior over time and are very choosy about which whales they will cooperative feed with. Unlike some of our other whales, mainly our orca that tend to stay in familial pods, our humpbacks are much more accustomed to life alone, which makes seeing this cooperation even more spectacular.  
 

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