Cooperative Feeding Nets Success for Humpback Whales
The cold, dark waters of Southeast Alaska are mysterious and magical. While motoring through the massive fjords and smaller channels, one might think that these waters were barren and empty. However, they are teeming with life, from the smallest organisms to the massive beasts that lurk in the depths. At one moment the water seems silky and calm, and the next instant a roiling storm of magnificent effervescence on the water’s surface heralds the arrival of the beasts from below. For a wildlife and nature lover, witnessing the cooperative bubble net feeding habits of the Humpback Whale often defy comprehension. Let’s shed a little light on the subject.
Humpback Whales are migratory, and only feed for half of the year. The other half, spent in their breeding grounds, they eat nothing at all. This means that they must consume a massive amount of food during their feeding periods, to build the fat stores that will sustain them while on their breeding grounds. Due to this, Humpback Whales will actively feed for up to twenty-two hours a day!
Bubble net feeding is a rather complex behavior, which is not innate to the Humpback Whale. It is a learned behavior, and studies show that some populations have not yet learned the technique. Humpback Whales communicate with each other more than any other whale on earth. The whales use vocalizations to organize and execute the bubble net. Each whale has a mission to accomplish, and when well-coordinated, each whale is rewarded with a mouthful of Herring and/or Krill.
First comes a feeding call, and then the dive. An arch of the back, followed by a massive fluke in the air, and the whales disappear. A calm, eerie silence follows. In the depths below, the group of Humpbacks communicate with one another and coordinate the feeding attempt. When everything is set, the group surges upward, causing the Herring to group into a ball. As this is happening, the “bubble specialist” whale begins to blow bubbles from a single point, then circles ever wider, to create a net of bubbles that surround their prey. To the human eye, I imagine it would look something like a tornado of bubbles. This net of bubbles encompasses the Herring and, afraid of the bubbles, keeps them from escaping.
Back on top of the water, I sit waiting, patiently observing the water for signs of the net. Without warning, the water begins to slowly roil. A wide, perfect circle of bubbles form. Inside that ring of bubbles, a massive ball of Herring sits, and not long after the ring appears, the show begins. It is a rather short, and in some ways violent show. In seconds, the ring of bubbles transforms into chaos, as the Humpback Whales launch upwards towards the sky. With mouths agape, they feast on the Herring and Krill, trapping them in their baleen “teeth”.
Amazingly, each whale draws in and displaces about 15,000 gallons of water with each gulp, roughly equivalent to the size of a school bus! The show is short lived, as the gentle giants slowly sink back into the dark waters of the fjord, maneuvering their bodies back to horizontal, and expelling the excess water from their recent lunge through their blowholes. This is often accompanied by a loud, chortling sound that I can only describe as confounding and prehistoric.
By learning to come together, communicate, and work towards success, one can draw many conclusions from these whales. For myself, it helps to strengthen my sense of togetherness and community. No matter who we are, where we come from, whether we know those around us or not…we’re not really all that different. We can come together, without thought or judgement, to enrich and improve one another’s lives, and accomplish goals collectively. Observing these feeding behaviors served to fill me with awe, wonder, and even a sense of purpose. I sincerely hope that one day, you all might have the chance to experience the same.
As always folks, thank you so much for reading, and for your support. Many of the best parts of my life come from all of you, this community, and the journey I am on as a result of it. If you have any questions or feedback, I’d love for you to comment. If you feel compelled to share, I’d enjoy that too. Don’t forget to check out the Wildside Nature Tours website, as well as our social media channels, to see what we’ve been up to and what adventures await. Until next time!
Lastly, I would like to again throw a HUGE shoutout to Brandon Leichter and Allen’s Camera for generously letting me borrow the new Canon 6D Mark ii to take with me to Alaska and make these images. Allen’s Camera is a wonderful camera shop in many ways, and now the camera shop that I call home. Check out their website here ( www.allenscamera.com ), where you can find just about anything new or used that you could ever think of. Their service is impeccable, and I cannot recommend them strongly enough! Thanks!
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