Whale Behavior, Feeding, Mating

Home | Category: Baleen Whales (Blue, Humpback and Right Whales) / Toothed Whales (Orcas, Sperm and Beaked Whales)


feeding humpbacks
Whales can be diurnal (active during the daytime), nocturnal (active at night), motile (move around as opposed to being stationary), nomadic (move from place to place, generally within a well-defined range), migratory (make seasonal movements between regions, such as between breeding and wintering grounds), sedentary (remain in the same area), solitary social colonial (living together in groups or in close proximity to each other), and have dominance hierarchies (ranking systems or pecking orders among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates). [Source: Eric J. Ellis and Allison Poor, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Whales are found alone and in groups that range from small, unstable associations (many baleen whale) to herds of hundreds of individuals (some toothed whales). Toothed whales are known to form lasting social bonds with individuals of both sexes. Some groups of toothed whales, like killer whale pods, form stable dominance hierarchies with a clear leader. Some cetacean species frequently travel in mixed-species groups. For example, melon-headed whales are often observed in association with Fraser's dolphins. /=\

Whales can be very sociable and very individualistic personalities. Daily activity patterns of whales are poorly understood. Most activity is observed in the daytime as this when observations by scientists are most easily made. Pilot whales other species of whales and are also famous for stranding themselves en masse on beaches. Often those that are rescued beach themselves again. Scientists are still unable to explain why the strand themselves.

Websites and Resources: Britain-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society uk.whales.org ; International Whaling Commission (IWC) iwc.in ; Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Fishbase fishbase.se; Encyclopedia of Life eol.org; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ocean.si.edu/ocean-life-ecosystems ; Monterey Bay Aquarium montereybayaquarium.org ; MarineBio marinebio.org/oceans/creatures. Books: “ The Grandest of Lives: Eye to Eye With Whales” by Douglas H. Chadwick (Sierra Club, 2006); “The Whale, In Search of the Giants of the Sea” by Philip Hoare (Ecco, 2010), a an erudite and literary look at whales and whaling and winner of the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction; “The Book of Whales” by Richard Ellis; “Secrets of the Whales” by Brian Skerry (2021). Videos: “Secrets of the Whales” is a 2021 National Geographic docuseries that premiered on Disney+. Shot at 24 locations around the world, it is produced by “Titanic” and “Avatar” director James Cameron and narrated by actress Sigourney Weaver. It is divided into four episodes focusing individually on orcas (killer whales), humpbacks and belugas, with the final episode featuring both sperm whales and narwhals.

Whale Feeding and Migrations

Antarctic krill, the main food source for many whales
Baleen whale are filter feeders, using their baleen to strain plankton and other tiny organisms from the water. Toothed whales primarily feed on fish, squid, and crustaceans, though the larger species also eat aquatic birds and mammals (including other cetaceans). During the peak of the feeding season, some baleen whales consume 20 percent of their body weight in food every day.

Blue whales, fin whales, and minke whales are known as gulpers. They gulp great mouthfuls of sea water and everything in it — their long furrowlike pleats on the throat and breast pouches expanding as they do. They use their tongues to push the water against their baleens, causing the water to go back out their mouths, swallowing the small animals left behind. Some whales feed on schools of small fish.

Some species of whale such as humpback whales and gray whales are known for their seasonal, long-distance migrations between temperate feeding grounds and tropical breeding grounds. Not all whale make such long distance movements. Some migrate on a smaller scale and others stay within one general area for their entire lives. /=\

Many baleen whales migrate large distances, usually between summer, warm-water breeding areas and winter feeding grounds in the Arctic and Antarctic, where the krill and plankton that baleen whales feed are abundant. Migrating whales often eat vast quantities of food in their feeding area and then eat virtually nothing from the time they begin migrating to their breeding and calving grounds to the time they return. The can go over months without eating, living the entire time off energy stored in their blubber.

Whale Swimming and Jumping

Whales, dolphins, and porpoises have two flippers on the front, and a tail fin. These flippers contain four digits. Although they do not possess fully developed hind limbs, some, such as the sperm whale, possess discrete rudimentary appendages, which may contain feet and digits. Most species have a dorsal fin. [Source: Wikipedia]

Swimming for whales is achieved by moving the tail and flukes up and down and using the flippers for stability. Baleen whale can reach speeds of up to 37 kilometers per hour (23 miles per hour) when swimming; toothed whales can swim more than 30 kilometers per hour. Cetaceans inhale before diving; they stay underwater anywhere from a few seconds to over an hour at a time. Some of the toothed whales, such as sperm whales (Physeter catodon), regularly reach depths of over 1,500 meters.[Source: Eric J. Ellis and Allison Poor, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Humpback whale, a baleen whale
Some whales are fast swimmer. Their fused neck vertebrae in toothed whales increases stability when swimming at high speeds but decreases flexibility, rendering them incapable of turning their heads. When swimming, whales rely on their tail fins to propel them through the water. Flipper movement is continuous. They swim by moving their tail fin and lower body up and down, propelling themselves through vertical movement, while their flippers are mainly used for steering. Some species log out of the water, which may allow them to travel faster.

Whales ordinarily come into view only briefly when the surface to breath. What they do much of the rest of the time when they are in under the water is unknown. Some scientist believe that whales "sail" by raising their tails out of the water and catching the wind.

Whales are considered the world's highest jumpers. They can leap up to 20 feet out of the water. Whale leaping out of the water is called breaching. The reason for this behavior is unknown. Some scientists believe they do it to communicate. Others speculate it is to remove parasites or play a role in feeding or looking around. Males breach more than females.

Whale Diving

Some whales can dive to depths of 4,000 feet and stay submerged for more than an hour. Bottlenose whales dive repeatedly to depths more than 1.6 kilometers and are no worse for the wear even though metal placed under the kind of pressure found at those depths would crumble like aluminum foil and a human would dissolve into jelly in a matter of seconds. Curvier's beaked whales can dive to a depth of three kilometers and stay submered for almost four hours with one breath.

Many toothed whales are adapted for diving to great depths, but many porpoises and dolphins are not. Baleen whales as a rule are not as good at deep diving as toothed whales as they tend to feed closer to the surface. Whale muscles have a large concentration of a oxygen-storing substance called myoglobin. It gives whale meat its deep red color and allows them to dive for such long periods of time and go 40 minutes between breaths.

Scientists have long wondered exactly how dolphins, whales and seals can stay under water so long. The secret seems to be that they float rather than swim downwards to conserve energy and do not use up oxygen unnecessarily. The stay as still as possible on the way down and use their energy to catch prey and swim back up. Whales, seals and dolphins all seem to use the same strategy. Scientists were able to observe his phenomena by strapping critter cam cameras on bottlenose dolphins, Wendell seals and even a blue whale.

In addition to their streamlined bodies, toothed whales can slow their heart rate to conserve oxygen; blood is rerouted from tissue tolerant of water pressure to the heart and brain among other organs; haemoglobin and myoglobin store oxygen in body tissue; and they have twice the concentration of myoglobin than haemoglobin. Before going on long dives, many toothed whales exhibit a behaviour known as sounding; they stay close to the surface for a series of short, shallow dives while building their oxygen reserves, and then make a sounding dive.

Cetacea (whales and dolphins): 1) Bowhead Whale; 2) Orca; 3) Right Whale;
4) Sperm Whale; 5) Narwhal; 6) Blue Whale; 7) Rorqual; 8) Beluga

Whale Intelligence

Some whales have brains the size of an oven. There are believed to be able to store huge amounts of data and remember things for a long time. Much of a whale's brain capacity is thought to be devoted to acoustic perception. Craig Welch wrote in National Geographic: Cetaceans’ capacity for learning captured our imaginations early. For decades we’ve packed marine theme parks, applauding killer whales, belugas, or bottlenose dolphins that sing or vault through hoops in giant pools.[Source: Craig Welch, National Geographic, April 15, 2021]

“Whales can be shrewd innovators. A few hungry sperm whales off Alaska in the late 1990s found new ways to snack: They stripped black cod off commercial fishing boat longlines. Using underwater cameras, scientists recorded a whale delicately grabbing a line with its massive jaw, creating tension, and then sliding its mouth up the strand until the vibrations popped off a fish. The practice, previously rare, quickly spread.

Humpback whales, working in teams, circle herring with disorienting curtains of bubbles off Alaska’s coast, then shoot up from below with their mouths open. This innovation developed among unrelated groups of humpbacks but is now a widely adopted practice. In the Gulf of Maine, in 1980, one humpback was seen hunting in a new way. Before blowing bubbles around schools of sand lances to disorient them, the whale smacked the surface with its fluke. Humpbacks regularly use the bubble technique, but the fluke slap was new. It’s not clear how it helps, but by 2013, scientists counted at least 278 whales that hunted this way.

Whale Culture

Some believe whales possess culture. National Geographic wildlife photographer Brian Skerry said “The latest greatest science is showing that they have cultures, they have traditions. At one time, Craig Welch wrote in National Geographic: The very notion seemed blasphemous. Anthropologists long had considered culture — the ability to socially accumulate and transfer knowledge — strictly a human affair. But researchers had described how songbirds learn dialects and transmit them across generations, and Ford proposed that killer whale groups might do the same. Then he started hearing about the findings of biologists studying a creature a world away: the sperm whale. Those scientists had been building a case that some whale species act and communicate differently based on how they’re raised. It appeared these cetaceans might carry on diverse traditions, just as some humans eat with chopsticks while others use forks. [Source: Craig Welch, National Geographic, April 15, 2021]

Today many scientists believe some whales and dolphins, like humans, have distinct cultures. Researchers see signs in sperm whales in the Galápagos and the Caribbean, in humpbacks across the South Pacific, in Arctic belugas, and in the Pacific Northwest’s killer whales. The possibility is prompting new thinking about how some marine species evolve. Cultural traditions may help drive genetic shifts, altering what it means to be a whale. But this idea is also reshaping our view of what separates us from these aquatic beasts. Whale culture, it seems, is rattling timeworn conceptions of ourselves.

Scientists have long understood that many whale actions must be picked up from peers or elders. It’s learned behavior and hardly shocking. Even Aristotle knew animals learned from one another. Songbirds raised away from their own families “utter a different voice from their parents,” he wrote. Charles Darwin noted that animal traps eventually must be moved because wild creatures “imitate each other’s caution.” While genes determine the shape and function of a creature’s body, encoding instructions for essential traits and behaviors, social learning is received wisdom, the development of neural connections that let animals learn from the knowledge of those around them. Scientists generally agree that culture requires that behaviors be socially learned and shared widely, and that they persist. As groups of animals transmit multiple learned behaviors, they can develop sets of habits wholly distinct from others of their species. For example, the ability to throw is genetic. But throwing a curveball requires social learning, and playing baseball instead of cricket is culture.

The danger, though, is to confuse culture with intelligence. Scientists don’t all agree on whether intelligence is an essential ingredient for culture. Social learning cuts widely across the animal kingdom, and not just among beings we consider “smart” — whales, primates, crows, elephants. Bumblebees may choose flowers based on the behavior of experienced bees. Mongooses learn from siblings and cousins to break open eggs or smash beetles. For whales, it appears “there is this boundary between us who learn from each other and do things one way,” whale reseracher Shane Gero explains, “and they who don’t learn from us and do things differently.”

The idea that whales have cultures at all, let alone that they segregate themselves into cultural groups as humans do, was controversial when Whitehead and Rendell presented it in 2001. “It is sad to see such rich empirical material, about such wonderful creatures, harnessed to such an impoverished theoretical agenda,” one British anthropologist sneered. Twenty years later, some skepticism remains. “I would never say that sperm or killer whales do not have culture, but I would say that the evidence for culture is stronger in many other animal species,” such as humpbacks and songbirds, says Peter Tyack, a scientist with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who studies cetacean communication. Genetics, animal development, and the environment can work in complex ways that make it hard to definitively link behavior to culture. “It is essential for scientists to be honest and humble about how little we know about the cultures of any animal species.”

And yet whale scientists increasingly embrace Whitehead’s view, says Sarah Mesnick, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It’s gaining acceptance because more and more people are observing it,” she says. Gero, for example, found similar divisions among sperm whale clans in an entirely different sea than his mentor: the Caribbean. And Gero’s ability to drill down into life with individual whales has strengthened Whitehead’s case.

Blue whale penis

Whale Feelings

Some whales grieve over dead like elephants and hoover around dead companions for hours or days. Sometimes they stroke the dead body. Whales take regular naps between 30 minutes and several hours between dives. “Avatar” and “Titanic” director James Cameron said: “What we learn...that they are people. They have family bonds… They have love. They have grief. They’re very much like us in many ways.” [Source: Gary Gerard Hamilton, Associated Press, April 21, 2021]

In 2018 an orca known as Tahlequah who lived off Washington state pushed the carcass of her newborn, which had died shortly after its birth, around with her snout for 17 days. “For years scientists vigorously avoided using emotional terms like happy, sad, playful or angry when describing animal behavior,” writes Joe Gaydos, who oversees a university program in Washington State to protect marine life through science and education. But Gaydos and many whale biologists believe Tahlequah’s behavior was a show of grief. [Source: Craig Welch, National Geographic, April 15, 2021]

Whale Mating and Reproduction

Whales are viviparous, meaning they give birth to live young that developed in the body of the mother, and engage mostly in seasonal breeding but sometimes breed year-round Females have an estrous cycle, which is similar to the menstrual cycle of human females. Minke whales have a postpartum estrus. Calving usually occurs in the warm season. Orcas and pilot whales are the only species other than humans known to experience menopause[Source: Eric J. Ellis and Allison Poor, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Whales have a low reproduction rate. They reach sexual maturity between the ages of six and eleven. every one to six years, after a 10 to 17 month gestation. Most whales species have just one mating season per year. .

Whales are difficult animals to study, especially their mating practices, and for this reason much about their reproduction remains a mystery. Most species are polygynandrous (promiscuous), with both males and females having multiple partners. The large testis size of some such as bowhead whales, indicates sperm competition.

Groups of males often pursue a single cow. Agitated males flick their tails, distend their throat pouches, lunge towards each other, lash each either with their tails, blow strings of bubbles. Scars on males are believed to be the result of fights. Young males sometimes engage in what has been described as “ribald form of fencing” with their long penises. While these males clearly seem to enjoy these encounters they also mate with females..

Sometimes, as with northern and southern right whales, courtship behavior can be observed at the surface. In this species, multiple males congregate around a single female and jostle for position in a frenzy of activity. The female may mate with several males in succession, or even with two at the same time.

Whale Calves

Whale young are precocial. This means they are relatively well-developed when born. During the pre-fertilization, pre-birth, pre-weaning and pre-independence stages provisioning and protecting are done by females. The post-independence period is characterized by the association of offspring with their mother. There is an extended period of juvenile learning. Parental care provided by males. is rare, but males have been reported anecdotally to show interest in their offspring and bring them food. [Source: Eric J. Ellis and Allison Poor, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Calves are born tail-first and have to be able to swim from the moment they are born. The calves are able to swim immediately but their lungs are deflated and they need a shove from their mothers to get to the surface to take their first breaths. Females nurse their calves for anywhere from six months (many baleen whale) to over two years (many toothed whales. Thirteen-year-old sperm whales have been found with milk in their stomachs.

Females protect their young from predators and provide guidance and milk. Mothers provide their young with milk extremely rich in protein and fat for at least six months. The females milk organs have special muscles that pump out the milk so it doesn't mix with sea water. Whale females are attentive mothers, helping their calves reach the surface to take their first breaths after they are born and keeping an eye out for predators. Among some species mothers and calves form associations that last long after calves are weaned. /=\

Whale calves grow quickly. Nursing blue whale calves gain 90 kilograms per day. Whale calves consume large quantities of their mother's fat-rich milk for their first year, during which time they double, triple or even quadruple their size. but do not reach sexual maturity for at least two years. Baleen whale do not reach sexual maturity until they are at least 10 years old. Even after sexual maturity, cetaceans may have to wait several years before they are socially mature enough to breed.

The bonding between cow and calf are very intense. The two stay side by side virtually the entire time of the calf's first year of life. Mothers are very protective. Sometimes they will remain with their calves even if they are dead at the cost of their own lives, a trait exploited by whalers who often tried to kill the calf first and then went after the grieving mother. Even in adulthood whales are known to seek out their mothers when under stress.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated June 2023

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