Humpback whales catch fish using bubbles and flippers

Camera footage reveals new details about the whales’ hunting strategy


Scientists observed a new hunting strategy that some humpback whales use to snag a meal. The whales blow “nets” made of bubbles then use their flippers to herd fish (illustrated in yellow) into their mouths.

Kyle Kosma/Royal Society Open Science 2019

Humpback whales need to eat a lot every day. Some even use their flippers to help snag a big mouthful of fish. Now, aerial footage has captured details of this hunting tactic for the first time.

Humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae) often feed by lunging with their mouths open to catch any fish in their path. Sometimes, the whales will first swim upward in a spiral and blow bubbles underwater. This creates a circular “net” of bubbles that makes it harder for fish to escape. “But there’s so much you can’t see while you’re looking at these animals, standing on a boat,” says Madison Kosma. She is a whale biologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

To get a better view of whales chowing down off the Alaskan coast, her team flew a drone. The researchers also held a video camera attached to a pole over floating salmon hatcheries. That’s near to where these whales were feeding.

The team noticed that two whales used the fins on each side of their bodies to herd fish inside the bubble nets. This hunting tactic is called pectoral herding. But the whales had their own way of herding fish.  

One whale splashed a flipper at weak parts of the bubble net to make it stronger. Then the whale lunged upward to capture fish. This is called horizontal pectoral herding.

The second whale also made a bubble net. But instead of splashing, the whale put its flippers up like a referee signaling a touchdown during a football game. It then swam up through the center of the bubble net. The raised flippers helped guide fish into the whale’s mouth. This is called vertical pectoral herding. 

Humpbacks sometimes blow bubbles underwater, creating a circular “net” of bubbles. Scientists had known this net makes it hard for fish to escape. Now a study shows the whales using their flippers to boost the ability of the nets to catch fish. The first clip shows the horizontal version of this tactic, called pectoral herding. Whales at the ocean’s surface splash a flipper to strengthen weak parts of a disintegrating bubble net. The second clip shows vertical pectoral herding. Whales raise their flippers in a “V” formation while swimming up through the net to guide fish into their mouths. The research was recorded under NOAA permits #14122 and #18529.
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Though the whales had different herding styles, they did have one thing in common, the scientists say. Both sometimes tilted their flippers to expose the white undersides to the sun. This reflected sunlight. And fish swam away from the flash of light, back toward the whales’ mouths.

Kosma’s team reported its findings October 16 in Royal Society Open Science.

This herding behavior isn’t just a fluke, the scientists think. The team observed herding in only a few whales feeding near salmon hatcheries. But Kosma suspects other dining humpbacks use their flippers in similar ways.

Sofie Bates is an intern at Science News. She holds an undergraduate degree in genetics and a master’s degree in science communication. Her print and multimedia work have appeared in Science, Mongabay, Inside Science, and The Mercury News.

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