How fat do baleen whales get? Recent publication shows how humpback whales increase their body condition over the foraging season. 

Dr. KC Bierlich, Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna (GEMM) Lab

Traveling across oceans takes a lot of energy. Most baleen whales use stored energy acquired on their summer foraging grounds to support the costs of migration to and reproduction on their winter breeding grounds. Since little, if any, feeding takes place during the migration and winter season, it is essential that baleen whales obtain enough food to increase their fat reserves to support reproduction. As such, baleen whales are voracious feeders, and they typically depart the foraging grounds much fatter than when they had arrived. 

So, how fat do baleen whales typically get by the end of the foraging season, and how does this differ across reproductive classes, such as a juvenile female vs. a pregnant female? Understanding these questions is key for identifying what a typical “healthy” whale looks like, information which can then help scientists and managers monitor potential impacts from environmental and anthropogenic stressors. In this blog, I will discuss a recent publication in Frontiers in Marine Science ( that is from my PhD dissertation with the Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing (MaRRS) Lab, and also includes GEMM lab members Allison Dawn and Clara Bird. In this study, we analyzed how humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) along the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) increase their fat reserves throughout the austral summer foraging season (Bierlich et al., 2022). This work also helps provide insight to the GEMM Lab’s GRANITE project (Gray whale Response to Ambient Noise Informed by Technology and Ecology), where we are interested in how Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales increase their energy reserves in response to environmental variability and increasing human activities. 

Eastern South Pacific humpback whales, identified as Stock G by the International Whaling Commission, travel over 16,000 km between summer foraging grounds along the WAP and winter breeding grounds between Ecuador and Costa Rica (Fig. 1). Like most baleen whales, Stock G humpback whales were heavily exploited by 20th century commercial whaling. Recent evidence suggests that this population is recovering, with an estimated increase in population size of ~7,000 individuals in 2000 to ~19,107 in 2020 (Johannessen et al., 2022). 

However, there are long-term concerns for this population. The WAP is one of the fastest warming regions on the planet, and regional populations of krill, an important food source for humpback whales, have declined steeply over the past half-century. Additionally, the WAP has seen a rapid expansion of human activities, such as tourism and krill fishing. Specifically, the WAP has experienced an increase in tourism from a total of 6,700 visitors from 59 voyages in 1990 to 73,000 visitors from 408 voyages in 2020, which may be causing increased stress levels amongst Stock G (Pallin et al., 2022). Furthermore, the krill fishery has increased harvest activities in key foraging areas for humpback whales (Reisinger et al., 2022). Understanding how humpback whales increase their energy reserves over the course of the foraging season can help researchers establish a baseline to monitor future impacts from climate change and human activities. This work also provides an opportunity for comparisons to other baleen whale populations that are also exposed to multiple stressors, such as the PCFG gray whales off the Newport Coast who are constantly exposed to vessel traffic and at risk of entanglement from fishing gear. 

Figure 1. The migration route of the Stock G humpback whale population. Figure adapted from Whales of the Antarctic Peninsula Report, WWF 2018.

To understand how humpback whales increase their energy reserves throughout the foraging season, we collected drone imagery of whales along the WAP between November and June, 2017-2019 (Fig. 2). We used these images to measure the length and width of the whale to estimate body condition, which represents an animal’s relative energy reserve and can reflect foraging success (see previous blog). We collected drone imagery from a combination of research stations (Palmer Station), research vessels (Laurence M. Gould), and tour ships (One Ocean Expeditions). We used several different drones types and accounted for measurement uncertainty associated with the camera, focal length lens, altitude, and altimeter (barometer/LiDAR) from each drone (see previous blog and Bierlich et al., 2021a, 2021b). We also took biopsy samples to identify the sex of each individual and to determine if females were pregnant or not. 

Figure 2. Two humpbacks gracefully swimming in the chilly water along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Photo taken by KC Bierlich & the Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing (MaRRS) Lab.

Our final dataset included body condition measurements for 228 total individuals. We found that body condition increased linearly between November and June for each reproductive class, which included calves, juvenile females, juvenile whales of unknown sex, lactating females, mature whales of unknown sex, and non-pregnant females (Fig. 3). This was an interesting finding because a recent publication analyzing tagged whales from the same population found that humpback whales have high foraging rates in early season that then significantly decrease by February and March (Nichols et al., 2022). So, despite these reduced foraging rates throughout the season, humpback whales continue to gain substantial mass into the late season. This continued increase in body condition implies a change in krill abundance and/or quality into the late season, which may compensate for the lower feeding rates. For example, krill density and biomass increases by over an order of magnitude across the season (Reiss et al., 2017) and their lipid content increases by ~4x (Hagen et al., 1996). Thus, humpback whales likely compensate for their lower feeding rates by feeding on denser and higher quality krill, ultimately increasing their efficiency in energy deposition. 

Figure 3. Body condition, here measured as Body Area Index (BAI), increases linearly for each reproductive class across the austral summer foraging season (Nov – June) for humpback whales along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. The shading represents the uncertainty around the estimated relationship. The colors represent the month of data collection.

We found that body condition increase varied amongst reproductive classes. For example, lactating females had the poorest measures of body condition across the season, reflecting the high energetic demands of nursing their calves (Fig. 3). Conversely, non-pregnant females had the highest body condition at the start of the season compared to all the other classes, likely reflecting the energy saved and recovered by skipping breeding that year.  Calves, juvenile whales, and mature whales all reached similar levels of body condition by the end of the season, though mature whales will likely invest most of their energy stores toward reproduction, whereas calves and juveniles likely invest toward growth. We also found a positive relationship between the total length of lactating females and their calves, suggesting that bigger moms have bigger calves (Fig. 4). A similar trend has also been observed in other baleen whale species including southern and North Atlantic right whales (Christiansen et al., 2018; Stewart et al., 2022).

Figure 4. Big mothers have big calves. Total length (TL) measurement between mother-calf pairs. The bars around each point represents the uncertainty (95% highest posterior density intervals). The colors represent the month of data collection. The blue line represents the best fit from a Deming regression, which incorporate measurement uncertainty in both the independent (mother’s TL) and dependent variable (calf’s TL).

The results from the humpback study provide insight for my current work exploring how PCFG gray whales increase their energy reserves in relation to environmental variability and increasing human activities. Over the past seven years, the GEMM Lab has been collecting drone images of PCFG gray whales off the coast of Oregon to measure their body condition (see this GRANITE Project blog). Many of the individuals we encounter are seen across years and throughout the foraging season, providing an opportunity to evaluate how an individual’s body condition is influenced by environmental variation, stress levels, maturity, and reproduction. For example, we had nine total body condition measurements of a female PCFG whale named “Sole”, who had a curvilinear increase in body condition throughout the summer foraging season – a rapid increase in early season that slowed as the season progressed (Fig. 5). This raises many questions for us: is this how most PCFG whales typically increase their body condition during the summer? Is this increase different for pregnant or lactating females? How is this increase impacted by environmental variability or anthropogenic stressors? Repeated measurements of individuals, in addition to Sole, in different reproductive classes across different years will help us determine what body condition is considered a healthy range for gray whales. This is particularly important for monitoring any potential health consequences from anthropogenic stressors, such as vessel noise and traffic (see recent blog by GEMM Lab alum Leila Lemos). We are currently analyzing body condition measurements between 2016 – 2022, so stay tuned for upcoming results!

Figure 6. Body condition, here measured as Body Area Index (BAI), increases curvilinearly for “Sole”, a mature female Pacific Coat Feeding Group gray whale, imaged nine times along the Oregon coast in 2021. The colors represent the month of data collection. 


Bierlich, K. C., Hewitt, J., Bird, C. N., Schick, R. S., Friedlaender, A., Torres, L. G., et al. (2021a). Comparing Uncertainty Associated With 1-, 2-, and 3D Aerial Photogrammetry-Based Body Condition Measurements of Baleen Whales. Front. Mar. Sci. 8, 1–16. doi:10.3389/fmars.2021.749943.

Bierlich, K. C., Hewitt, J., Schick, R. S., Pallin, L., Dale, J., Friedlaender, A. S., et al. (2022). Seasonal gain in body condition of foraging humpback whales along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Front. Mar. Sci. 9, 1–16. doi:10.3389/fmars.2022.1036860.

Bierlich, K., Schick, R., Hewitt, J., Dale, J., Goldbogen, J., Friedlaender, A., et al. (2021b). Bayesian approach for predicting photogrammetric uncertainty in morphometric measurements derived from drones. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 673, 193–210. doi:10.3354/meps13814.

Christiansen, F., Vivier, F., Charlton, C., Ward, R., Amerson, A., Burnell, S., et al. (2018). Maternal body size and condition determine calf growth rates in southern right whales. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 592, 267–281.

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Johannessen, J. E. D., Biuw, M., Lindstrøm, U., Ollus, V. M. S., Martín López, L. M., Gkikopoulou, K. C., et al. (2022). Intra-season variations in distribution and abundance of humpback whales in the West Antarctic Peninsula using cruise vessels as opportunistic platforms. Ecol. Evol. 12, 1–13. doi:10.1002/ece3.8571.

Nichols, R., Cade, D. E., Kahane-Rapport, S., Goldbogen, J., Simpert, A., Nowacek, D., et al. (2022). Intra-seasonal variation in feeding rates and diel foraging behavior in a seasonally fasting mammal, the humpback whale. Open Sci. 9, 211674.

Pallin, L. J., Botero-Acosta, N., Steel, D., Baker, C. S., Casey, C., Costa, D. P., et al. (2022). Variation in blubber cortisol levels in a recovering humpback whale population inhabiting a rapidly changing environment. Sci. Rep. 12, 1–13. doi:10.1038/s41598-022-24704-6.

Reisinger, R., Trathan, P. N., Johnson, C. M., Joyce, T. W., Durban, J. W., Pitman, R. L., et al. (2022). Spatiotemporal overlap of baleen whales and krill fisheries in the Antarctic Peninsula region. Front. Mar. Sci. doi:doi: 10.3389/fmars.2022.914726.

Reiss, C. S., Cossio, A., Santora, J. A., Dietrich, K. S., Murray, A., Greg Mitchell, B., et al. (2017). Overwinter habitat selection by Antarctic krill under varying sea-ice conditions: Implications for top predators and fishery management. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 568, 1–16. doi:10.3354/meps12099.

Stewart, J. D., Durban, J. W., Europe, H., Fearnbach, H., Hamilton, P. K., Knowlton, A. R., et al. (2022). Larger females have more calves : influence of maternal body length on fecundity in North Atlantic right whales. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 689, 179–189. doi:10.3354/meps14040.

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