What makes a good meal for a hungry whale?

By Dawn Barlow, PhD student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

In the vast and dynamic marine environment, food is notoriously patchy and ephemeral [1]. Predators such as marine mammals and seabirds must make a living in this dynamic environment by locating and capturing those prey patches. Baleen whales such as blue and humpback whales have a feeding strategy called “lunge feeding”, whereby they accelerate forward and open their massive jaws, engulf prey-laden water in their buccal pouch that expands like an accordion, and filter the water out through baleen plates so that they are left with a mouthful of food (Fig. 1) [2]. This approach is only efficient if whales can locate and target dense prey patches that compensate for the energetic costs of diving and lunging [3]. Therefore, not only do these large predators need to locate enough food to survive in the expansive and ever-changing ocean, they need to locate food that is dense enough to feed on, otherwise they actually lose more energy by lunging than they gain from the prey they engulf.

Figure 1. Schematic of a humpback whale lunge feeding on a school of fish. Illustration by Alex Boersma.

Why do baleen whales rely on such a costly feeding approach? Interestingly, this tactic emerged after the evolution of schooling behavior of prey such as zooplankton and forage fish (e.g., herring, anchovy, sand lance) [4]. Only because the prey aggregate in dense patches can these large predators take advantage of them by lunge feeding, and by engulfing a whole large patch they efficiently exploit these prey patches. Off the coast of California, where krill aggregations are denser in deeper water, blue whales regularly dive to depths of 100-300 m in order to access the densest krill patches and get the most bang for their buck with every lunge [5]. In New Zealand, we have found that blue whales exploit the dense krill patches near the surface to maximize their energetic gain [6], and have documented a blue whale bypassing smaller krill patches that presumably were not worth the effort to feed on.

By now hopefully I have convinced you of the importance of dense prey patches to large whales looking for a meal. It is not necessarily only a matter of total prey biomass in an area that is important to a whale, it is whether that prey biomass is densely aggregated. What makes for a dense prey patch? Recent work has shown that forage species, namely krill and anchovies, swarm in response to coastal upwelling [7]. While upwelling events do not necessarily change the total biomass of prey available to a whale over a spatial area, they may aggregate prey to a critical density to where feeding by predators becomes worthwhile. Forage species like zooplankton and small fish may school because of enhanced food resources, for predator avoidance, or reproductive grouping. While the exact behavioral reason for the aggregation of prey may still only be partially understood, the existence of these dense patches allows the largest animals on the planet to survive.

Another big question is, how do whales actually find their food? In the vast, seemingly featureless, and ever-changing ocean environment, how does a whale know where to find a meal, and how do they know it will be worthwhile before they take a lunge? In a review paper written by GEMM Lab PI Dr. Leigh Torres, she suggests it is all a matter of scale [8]. On a very large scale, baleen whales likely rely on oceanographic stimuli to home in on areas where prey are more likely to be found. Additionally, recent work has demonstrated that migrating blue whales return to areas where foraging conditions were best in previous years, indicating a reliance on memory [9,10]. On a very fine scale, visual cues may inform how a blue whale chooses to lunge [6,8,11].

What does it matter what a blue whale’s favorite type of meal is? Besides my interest in foundational research in ecology such as predator-prey dynamics, these questions are fundamental to developing effective management approaches for reducing impacts of human activities on whales. In the first chapter of my PhD, I examined how oceanographic features of the water column structure krill aggregations, and how blue whale distribution is influenced by oceanography and krill availability [12]. Currently, I am deep into my second chapter, analyzing the pathway from wind to upwelling to krill to blue whales in order to better understand the links and time lags between each step. Understanding the time lags will allow us to make more informed models to forecast blue whale distribution in my third chapter. Environmental managers in New Zealand plan to establish a protected area to conserve the population of blue whales that I study [13] on their foraging grounds. Understanding where blue whales will be distributed, and consequently how their distribution patterns might shift with environmental conditions or overlap with human activities, comes down the fundamental question I started this blog post with: What makes a good meal for a hungry whale?


1.        Hyrenbach KD, Forney KA, Dayton PK. 2000 Marine protected areas and ocean basin management. Aquat. Conserv. Mar. Freshw. Ecosyst. 10, 437–458. (doi:10.1002/1099-0755(200011/12)10:6<437::AID-AQC425>3.0.CO;2-Q)

2.        Goldbogen JA, Cade DE, Calambokidis J, Friedlaender AS, Potvin J, Segre PS, Werth AJ. 2017 How Baleen Whales Feed: The Biomechanics of Engulfment and Filtration. Ann. Rev. Mar. Sci. 9, 367–386. (doi:10.1146/annurev-marine-122414-033905)

3.        Goldbogen JA, Calambokidis J, Oleson E, Potvin J, Pyenson ND, Schorr G, Shadwick RE. 2011 Mechanics, hydrodynamics and energetics of blue whale lunge feeding: efficiency dependence on krill density. J. Exp. Biol. 214, 131–146. (doi:10.1242/jeb.048157)

4.        Cade DE, Carey N, Domenici P, Potvin J, Goldbogen JA. 2020 Predator-informed looming stimulus experiments reveal how large filter feeding whales capture highly maneuverable forage fish. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. (doi:10.1073/pnas.1911099116)

5.        Hazen EL, Friedlaender AS, Goldbogen JA. 2015 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. (doi:10.1126/sciadv.1500469)

6.        Torres LG, Barlow DR, Chandler TE, Burnett JD. 2020 Insight into the kinematics of blue whale surface foraging through drone observations and prey data. PeerJ (doi:10.7717/peerj.8906)

7.        Benoit-Bird KJ, Waluk CM, Ryan JP. 2019 Forage Species Swarm in Response to Coastal Upwelling. Geophys. Res. Lett. 46, 1537–1546. (doi:10.1029/2018GL081603)

8.        Torres LG. 2017 A sense of scale: Foraging cetaceans’ use of scale-dependent multimodal sensory systems. Mar. Mammal Sci. 33, 1170–1193. (doi:10.1111/mms.12426)

9.        Abrahms B et al. 2019 Memory and resource tracking drive blue whale migrations. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. (doi:10.1073/pnas.1819031116)

10.      Szesciorka AR, Ballance LT, Širovi A, Rice A, Ohman MD, Hildebrand JA, Franks PJS. 2020 Timing is everything: Drivers of interannual variability in blue whale migration. Sci. Rep. 10, 1–9. (doi:10.1038/s41598-020-64855-y)

11.      Friedlaender AS, Herbert-Read JE, Hazen EL, Cade DE, Calambokidis J, Southall BL, Stimpert AK, Goldbogen JA. 2017 Context-dependent lateralized feeding strategies in blue whales. Curr. Biol. (doi:10.1016/j.cub.2017.10.023)

12.      Barlow DR, Bernard KS, Escobar-Flores P, Palacios DM, Torres LG. 2020 Links in the trophic chain: Modeling functional relationships between in situ oceanography, krill, and blue whale distribution under different oceanographic regimes. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. (doi:https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13339)

13.      Barlow DR et al. 2018 Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endanger. Species Res. 36, 27–40. (doi:https://doi.org/10.3354/esr00891)

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