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What do Whales Eat?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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Whales are divided into two suborders — toothed and baleen whales — and each eats very different kinds of food. Toothed whales eat fish, squid, and other animals, while baleens eat plankton, krill, and other small creatures. Some studies have also suggested that human activities may have influenced whale feeding habits and the diet of whales, judging from reviews of historical evidence and studies of modern whales.

Toothed whales, such as killer whales and pilot whales, are equipped with a large set of teeth, as their name implies. These whales have a diet that includes schooling fishes, squid, and marine mammals such as seals. Some species eat other whales and dolphins. In the case of killer whales, also known as orcas, the animals often work cooperatively to bring down prey much larger than themselves. Researchers have even documented instances of killer whales going after blue whales, the largest mammals on Earth.

Baleen whales are filter feeders that eat things like plankton, copepods, small fish, and krill. They filter their food through a comb-like structure known as baleen. Blue whales, minke whales, and right whales are some examples. Gray whales filter the sediment on the ocean floor to access the small creatures that live there. Blue whales can eat up to 8,000 pounds (3,600 kilograms) of food every day during the season when they feed to store up energy reserves for the winter. In the winter months, the animals survive on their blubber.

The stored energy in the form of blubber is common to many marine mammals. In addition to being a source of energy when food is difficult to obtain, the blubber also provides insulation which protects the whales from extremely cold water, allowing them to travel to extreme latitudes. Blubber has also been of historical interest to humans as a source of fuel; whaling was once a worldwide industry which generated tremendous profits, primarily from the sale of this tissue.

Studies to determine what whales eat can be conducted in a number of ways. Historically, anecdotal evidence from whalers was used to learn more about the diet of whales. In the modern era, researchers can sift through whale excrement to extract mitochondrial DNA, which reveals the identity of the organisms the whale ate. This method has been promoted by researchers who do not want to kill whales to learn more about them.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the primary diet of large baleen whales?

Baleen whales, such as blue and humpback whales, primarily consume small marine organisms like krill and plankton. They use their baleen plates to filter these tiny creatures from the water. During feeding seasons, a blue whale can consume up to 4 tons of krill a day, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

How do toothed whales like orcas hunt their prey?

Toothed whales, including orcas and sperm whales, have teeth that they use to grasp and tear their prey. Orcas, known as apex predators, have a diverse diet including fish, seals, and even other whales. They employ sophisticated hunting techniques like herding and beaching to catch their prey, showcasing their intelligence and adaptability.

Do all whales eat fish?

Not all whales eat fish. While toothed whales such as dolphins, porpoises, and some species of beaked whales do include fish in their diet, many baleen whales primarily feed on smaller organisms like krill and plankton. The diet of a whale largely depends on its species and the environment in which it lives.

Can whales consume large prey?

Some whales are capable of consuming large prey. Sperm whales, for example, dive deep into the ocean to hunt giant squids. These battles can be intense, as evidenced by scars found on sperm whales from squid tentacles. However, most large whales feed on smaller prey that they filter through their baleen plates.

How much food does a whale need to eat in a day?

The amount of food a whale needs can vary greatly depending on its size and species. A blue whale, the largest animal on Earth, can eat up to 4 tons of krill daily during feeding season. In contrast, smaller whales will eat less, but they still require hundreds of pounds of food each day to sustain their massive energy needs.

Do whales ever eat plants or seaweed?

Whales do not typically eat plants or seaweed. They are carnivorous or omnivorous, feeding on marine life ranging from tiny plankton to large marine mammals. Their diets are adapted to the rich, protein-heavy resources available in their aquatic habitats, rather than plant-based materials.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon997424 — On Jan 05, 2017

They also eat mysids and and isopods and plankton.

By wavy58 — On Jan 26, 2013

@DylanB – The only time I've ever heard of a whale attacking a person was when it was being held captive at a water park. It felt threatened and unhappy, so it lashed out.

I've never heard of people being attacked by whales at sea. Since people like to go out on boats to go whale watching, I doubt there is any danger.

By DylanB — On Jan 25, 2013

I did not know that whales would gang up to kill a bigger whale. That seems like cannibalism!

I would expect killer whales to eat seals and even dolphins. I am surprised to read that they eat their own relatives, even if they are very distant ones.

Do whales eat humans? If I'm ever out on a boat and surrounded by killer whales, I'd like to know if I should worry.

By OeKc05 — On Jan 25, 2013

@StarJo – Baleen is where the teeth on a regular whale would be. It looks like fringe, and the whales catch their tiny prey in it.

They bite down and strain out the water, and then they lick the baleen to get the food out of it. I've seen a video of this, and it's pretty cool.

By StarJo — On Jan 24, 2013

How exactly do baleen whales eat? I know that they filter their food somehow, but how does this work? Is the baleen in the throat or closer to the front of the mouth?

By Babalaas — On Aug 07, 2010

@ Parmnparsley- I think I have seen that same television special. I also watched a special about the colossal squid that the sperm whale eats. Fisherman caught a live specimen near Antarctica that was about 30 feet long and weighed about a half ton. Scientists were working to thaw and preserve the specimen to put on display.

It is amazing that a whale can eat something half its size. That would be like a person eating a four foot long 10 pound sub sandwich that can bite back.

By parmnparsley — On Aug 06, 2010

I watched a television special about sperm whales and what they eat. I was amazed to find out their favorite food is giant squid. The whales dive to incredible depths to find and hunt giant squid. The squid put up a heck of a fight, gouging the sperm whales with their tentacles. Evidence of their taste for squid can be seen on the ring marks that scar the faces of many sperm whales. The squid have also been found in the belly of dead sperm whales.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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