With new approaches come new insights: What we do and don’t know about blue whales

By Dawn Barlow, MSc student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife

A few weeks ago, my labmate Dom’s blog reminded me that it is important to step back from the data and appreciate the magnificence of the animals we study from time to time. I have the privilege of studying the largest creatures on the planet. When people hear that I study blue whales, I often get a series of questions: Just how big are they, really? How many are there? Where do they migrate? Where do they breed? Despite the fact that humans hunted blue whales nearly to extinction [1,2], we still know next to nothing about these giants. The short answer to many of those questions is, “Well we don’t really know, but we’re working on it!” Which brings me back to taking time to marvel at these animals for a bit. Isn’t it remarkable that the largest animals on earth can be so mysterious?

A blue whale comes up for air in a calm sea. Photo by Leigh Torres.

Last year at this time we were aboard a research vessel in New Zealand surveying for blue whales and collecting a myriad of biological data to try and glean some insight into their lives. This winter I am processing those data and conducting a literature review to get a firm grasp on what others have found before about blue whale foraging and bioenergetics. On any given Tuesday morning Leigh and I can be found musing about the mechanics of a baleen whale jaw, about what oceanographic boundaries in the water column might be meaningful to a blue whale, about how we might quantify the energy expenditure of a foraging whale. Here are some of those musings.

Approaching a blue whale in a rigid-hull inflatable boat for data collection. UAS piloted by Todd Chandler.

Humans are, for the most part, terrestrial creatures. Even those of us that would prefer to spend most of our time near, on, or in the water are limited in what we can observe of marine life. Much of the early data that was collected on blue whales came from whaling catches. Observations of anatomy and morphology were made once the whales were killed and taken out of their marine environment. This was not long ago—Soviet whaling continued into the 1970’s in New Zealand [3]. Because baleen whales are long lived (exact age unknown for blue whales but a bowhead whale was estimated to be at least 150 years old [4]) it is entirely possible that blue whales living today remember being hunted by whalers. Observing whales in their natural state is not easy, particularly post-commercial whaling when they are few and far between.

Yet, where there is a challenge, clever people develop creative approaches and new technologies, leading to new insights. High-quality cameras have allowed scientists to photograph whales for individual identification—a valuable first step in figuring out how many there are and where they go [5]. Satellite tags have allowed scientists to track the movement of blue whales in the North Pacific and Indian Oceans, a first step in learning where these whales might go to breed. However, no blue whale breeding ground has definitively been discovered yet…

What does a whale do when it is below the surface, out of sight of our terrestrial eyes? A study from 1986 that attempted to calculate the prey demands of a whale assumed that whenever a whale was submerged, it was feeding [6]. A big assumption, but a starting place without any dive data. By 2002, tags equipped with time-depth recorders (TDR) had already revealed that blue whales make dives of variable depths and shapes [7]. But, what determines a whale’s path underwater, where they must conserve as much oxygen as they can while finding and exploiting patches of prey? The advent of digital acoustic recording tags (DTAGs) in the early 2000s have allowed scientists to measure the fine-scale movements of whales in three dimensions [8]. These tags can capture the kinematic signatures (based on pitch, roll, and yaw) of lunge-feeding events below the surface. And with the addition of echosounder technology that allows us to map the prey field, we can now link feeding events with characteristics of the prey present in the area [9]. With this progression of technology, curiosity and insight we now know that blue whales are not indiscriminate grazers, but instead pass up small patches of krill in favor of large, dense aggregations where they will get the most energetic bang for their buck.

A blue whale shows its fluke as it dives deep in an area with abundant krill deep in the water column. Photo by L. Torres.

The advent of unmanned aerial systems (UAS, a.k.a. “drones”) have provided yet another unique perspective on the lives of these whales. In 2016, our New Zealand blue whale team recorded nursing behavior between a mother and calf. In 2017, we were able to capture surface lunge feeding behavior from an aerial perspective, both for the first time.

A blue whale lunges on an aggregation of krill. UAS piloted by Todd Chandler.

Through innovative approaches, we are beginning to understand the lives of these mysterious giants. As is true for many things, the more we learn, the more questions we have. Through the GEMM Lab’s blue whale project, we have determined that a unique population of blue whales occupies the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand year-round; they do not simply migrate through as their current threat classification status indicates [10]. But what are their distribution patterns? Can we predict when and where whales are most likely to be in the South Taranaki Bight? Does this population have a different foraging strategy than their Californian, Chilean, or Antarctic counterparts? These are the things we are working on unraveling, and that will aid in their conservation. In the meantime, I’ll keep musing about what we don’t know, and remember to keep marveling at what we do know about the largest creatures on earth.

A blue whale mother and calf surface near Farewell Spit, New Zealand. Photo by D. Barlow.


  1. Clapham, P. J., Young, S. B. & Brownell Jr., R. L. Baleen whales: conservation issues and the status of the most endangered populations. Mamm. Rev. 29, 37–60 (1999).
  2. Branch, T. a, Matsuoka, K. & Miyashita, T. Evidence for increases in Antarctic blue whales based on baysian modelling. Mar. Mammal Sci. 20, 726–754 (2004).
  3. Branch, T. A. et al. Past and present distribution, densities and movements of blue whales Balaenoptera musculus in the Southern Hemisphere and northern Indian Ocean. Mammal Review 37, 116–175 (2007).
  4. George, J. C. et al. Age and growth estimates of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) via aspartic acid racemization. Can. J. Zool. 77, 571–580 (1998).
  5. Sears, R. et al. Photographic identification of the Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus) in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada. Report of the International Whaling Commission Special Issue 335–342 (1990).
  6. Kenney, R. D., Hyman, M. A. M., Owen, R. E., Scott, G. P. & Winn, H. E. Estimation of prey densities required by Western North Atlantic right whales. Mar. Mammal Sci. 2, 1–13 (1986).
  7. Acevedo-Gutierrez, A., Croll, D. A. & Tershy, B. R. High feeding costs limit dive time in the largest whales. J. Exp. Biol. 205, 1747–1753 (2002).
  8. Johnson, M. P. & Tyack, P. L. A digital acoustic recording tag for measuring the response of wild marine mammals to sound. IEEE J. Ocean. Eng. 28, 3–12 (2003).
  9. Hazen, E. L., Friedlaender, A. S. & Goldbogen, J. A. Blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) optimize foraging efficiency by balancing oxygen use and energy gain as a function of prey density. Sci. Adv. 1, e1500469–e1500469 (2015).
  10. Baker, C. S. et al. Conservation status of New Zealand marine mammals, 2013. (2016).
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