Whale blow: good for more than spotting whales

Clara Bird, Masters Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Whale blow, the puff of air mixed with moisture that a whale releases when it comes to the surface, is a famously thrilling indicator of the presence of a whale. From shore, spotting whale blow brings the excitement of knowing that there are whales nearby. During boat-based field work, seeing or hearing blow brings the rush of adrenaline meaning that it’s game time. Whale blow can also be used to identify different species of whales, for example gray whale blow is heart shaped (Figure 1). However, whale blow can be used for more than just spotting and identifying whales. We can use the time between blows to study energetics.

Figure 1. Gray whale blow is often heart shaped (when there is very little wind). Source: https://www.lajollalight.com/sdljl-natural-la-jolla-winter-wildlife-2015jan08-story.html

A blow interval is the time between consecutive blows when a whale is at the surface (Stelle, Megill, and Kinzel 2008). These are also known as short breath holds, whereas long breath holds are times between surfacings (Sumich 1983).  Sumich (1983) hypothesized that short breath holds lead to efficient rates of oxygen use. The body uses oxygen to create energy, so “efficient rate of oxygen use” means that longer breath holds do not use much more oxygen and subsequently do not produce more energy.  Surfacings, during which short blow intervals occur, are often thought of as recovery periods for whales. Think of it this way, when you sprint, immediately afterwards you typically need to take a break to just breathe and recover.

We hypothesize that we can use blow intervals as a measure of how strenuous an activity is; shorter blow intervals may indicate that an activity is more energetically demanding (Wursig, Wells, and Croll 1986). Let’s go back to the sprinting analogy and compare the energetic demands of walking and running. Imagine I asked you to walk for five minutes, stop and measure the time between each breath, and then run for five minutes and do the same; after running, you would likely breathe more heavily and take more breaths with less time between them. This result indicates that running is more demanding, which we already know because we can do other experiments with humans to study metabolic rate and related metrics. In the case of gray whales, we cannot do experiments in the same way, but we can use the same analogy. Several studies have examined how blow intervals differ between travelling and foraging.

Wursig, Wells, and Croll (1986) measured blow interval, surfacing time, and estimated dive depth and duration of gray whales in Alaska from a boat during the foraging season. They found that blow intervals were shorter during feeding. They also found that the number of blows per surfacing increased with increasing depth. Overall these findings suggest that during the foraging season, feeding is more strenuous than other behaviors and that deeper dives may be more physiologically stressful.

Stelle, Megill, and Kinzel (2008) studied gray whales foraging off of British Columbia, Canada. They found shorter blow intervals during foraging, intermediate blow intervals during searching, and longer blow intervals during travelling. Interestingly, within feeding behaviors, they found a difference between whales feeding on mysids (krill-like animals that swim in the water column) and whales feeding benthically on amphipods. They found that whales feeding on mysids made more frequent but shorter dives with short blow intervals at surface, while whales feeding benthically had longer dives with longer blow intervals. They hypothesized that this difference in surfacing pattern is because mysids might scatter when disturbed, so gray whales surface more often to allow the mysids swarm to reform. These studies inspired me to start investigating these same questions with my drone video data.

As I review the drone footage and code the behaviors I also mark the time of each blow. I’ve done some initial video coding and using this data I have started to look into differences in blow intervals. As it turns out, we see a similar difference in blow interval relative to behavior state in our data: whales that are foraging have shorter blow intervals than when traveling (Figure 2). It is encouraging to see that our data shows similar patterns.

Figure 2. Boxplot of mean blow interval per sighting of foraging whales and travelling whales.

Next, I would like to examine how blow intervals differ between foraging tactics. A significant part of my thesis is dedicated to studying specific foraging tactics. The perspective from the drone allows us to identify behaviors in greater detail than studies from shore or boat (Torres et al. 2018), allowing us to dig into the differences between the different foraging behaviors. The purpose of foraging is to gain energy. However, this gain is a net gain. To understand the different energetic “values” of each tactic we need to understand the cost of each behavior, i.e. how much energy is required to perform the behavior. Given previous studies, maybe blow intervals could help us measure this cost or at least compare the energetic demands of the behaviors relative to each other. Furthermore, because different behaviors are likely associated with different prey types (Dunham and Duffus 2001), we also need to understand the different energetic gains of each prey type (this is something that Lisa is studying right now, check out the COZI project to learn more). By understanding both of these components – the gains and costs – we can understand the energetic tradeoffs of the different foraging tactics.

Another interesting component to this energetic balance is a whale’s health and body condition. If a whale is in poor health, can it afford the energetic costs of certain behaviors? If whales in poor body condition engage in different behavior patterns than whales in good body condition, are these patterns explained by the energetic costs of the different foraging behaviors? All together this line of investigation is leading to an understanding of why a whale may choose to use different foraging behaviors in different situations. We may never get the full picture; however, I find it really exciting that something as simple and non-invasive as measuring the time between breaths can contribute such a valuable data stream to this project.


Dunham, Jason S., and David A. Duffus. 2001. “Foraging Patterns of Gray Whales in Central Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia, Canada.” Marine Ecology Progress Series 223 (November): 299–310. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps223299.

Stelle, Lei Lani, William M. Megill, and Michelle R. Kinzel. 2008. “Activity Budget and Diving Behavior of Gray Whales (Eschrichtius Robustus) in Feeding Grounds off Coastal British Columbia.” Marine Mammal Science 24 (3): 462–78. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-7692.2008.00205.x.

Sumich, James L. 1983. “Swimming Velocities, Breathing Patterns, and Estimated Costs of Locomotion in Migrating Gray Whales, Eschrichtius Robustus.” Canadian Journal of Zoology 61 (3): 647–52. https://doi.org/10.1139/z83-086.

Torres, Leigh G., Sharon L. Nieukirk, Leila Lemos, and Todd E. Chandler. 2018. “Drone up! Quantifying Whale Behavior from a New Perspective Improves Observational Capacity.” Frontiers in Marine Science 5 (SEP). https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2018.00319.

Wursig, B., R. S. Wells, and D. A. Croll. 1986. “Behavior of Gray Whales Summering near St. Lawrence Island, Bering Sea.” Canadian Journal of Zoology 64 (3): 611–21. https://doi.org/10.1139/z86-091.

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