Subject: Feeding whales

Phil Clapham (
Mon, 11 Jan 1999 09:13:11 -0500

Hello Mrs Stafford and her class!

Thanks for the good question.  First, a lot of whales actually eat fish
rather than plankton.  There's this old myth that big whales only eat
plankton, but it isn't true.  Right whales seem to eat mostly, perhaps,
only plankton.  Blue whales eat mostly krill, which is technically
plankton also.  Plankton is anything in the ocean that is at the whim of
the tides and currents, and it's divided into two types: phytoplankton
(tiny plants), and zooplankton( little animals, ranging in size from
microscopic creatures to small shrimp-sized critters such as krill). 
Humpbacks, fin whales, minkes and others eat krill, but also lots of
small fish such as herring, sand lance, capelin etc.

If a right whale was feeding on plankton and a fish got into its mouth,
it would probably swallow it.  Baleen whales like right and humpback
whales have huge mouths but very small gullets - even in big blue whales
they're small, so they're restricted in the size of what they can
swallow.  I don't know what would happen in a huge fish got into a
whale's mouth, but it's probably unlikely that this would happen.  I
have, however, seen 'em eat seagulls from time to time - they don't mean
to, but occasionally a gull swooping down for fish will get caught by
the huge open mouth of a lunging whale.  As I said, they don't mean to
do it, but on the eight or nine occasions I've seen this happen with
humpback whales, they don't spit them out, either!

Phil Clapham

Ann Stafford wrote:
> My 2nd grade students have a question.  If a baleen whale opens its mouth
> to get plankton and a fish gets in, what does he do with the fish?
> Thank you,
> Mrs. Stafford's 2nd grade class
> Loudon, Tenn


Phillip J. Clapham, Ph.D.
Northeast Fisheries Science Center
166 Water Street
Woods Hole, MA 02543

tel (508) 495-2316
fax (508) 495-2066