Fish On The Menu: Do Humpback Whales Eat Fish?

do humpback whales eat fish

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With a length of 16 meters / 52 feet and a weight of 36 metric tons, there is no denying that the humpback whale has an impressive size.

So what does an animal so massive have to eat to remain healthy and have enough fat to stay comfortable in the cold polar waters? 

Surprisingly, very small things, lots of it, between 1,361 – 2,268 kg / 3,000 – 5,000 lbs a day! But what exactly does the humpback whale eat?

Do humpback whales eat fish? In a nutshell, yes. Humpback whales eat fish.

However, you must keep in mind that these giants are baleen whales, and a humpback whale’s throat is only as wide as your closed fist so they are pretty limited on the kind of fish they can feed on.

In this article, you will learn exactly what kind of fish makes part of the humpback whale’s diet, how much fish is eaten by a humpback, what else is on this whale’s menu, plus some really cool facts about their preferred fishing methods.

Do Humpback Whales Only Eat Fish?

No. The humpback whales’ diet consists mostly of plankton, krill, squid, and small fish. So as you can see its meals also include some small crustaceans and microscopic organisms. 

Remember I mentioned that humpbacks are baleen whales? This means they are filter feeders that don’t have teeth and must swallow their prey whole.

What you will find inside the mouths of these creatures are long hair-like bristles that grow downward from the whale’s upper jaw.

These bristles are made from keratin, the same protein that makes up your hair and fingernails, and their job is to keep the whale’s tiny prey inside its mouth when the humpback pushes out the large amounts of water it engulfs while swimming with an open mouth consuming schools of krill and plankton. 

You may be wondering why humpback whales don’t just go after schools of small fish as it would be easier to reach their daily caloric intake by eating something larger than microscopic organisms such as plankton or extra tiny crustaceans like krill. 

The truth is their massive size eliminates the possibility of catching prey via an ambush strategy so in order to catch fish humpback whales have to get more creative.

I will tell you more about the absolutely astonishing methods these marine mammals employ for this purpose later on. 

What Fish Do Humpback Whales Eat?

The humpback whales’ diet can vary slightly from one population to another as they will feed on whatever is available.

It can also have a seasonal variation that responds to the migration patterns of both, whales and fish. 

Below you will find a list of the fish more commonly eaten by humpback whales: 

  • Anchovies
  • Sardines
  • Sand lance
  • Herring
  • Juvenile salmon
  • Mackerel
  • Capelin
  • Pollock
  • Haddock
  • Whitefish

How Much Fish Do Humpback Whales Eat?

There is no exact number of how much of a humpback whale’s diet is made up of fish but the most recent scientific data available suggests that at least 50% of it is, and could even be 75%.

Quite impressive when you think of the fact that these creatures can eat around 1.4 metric tons of food a day!

As I said earlier, preferred prey species vary among different whale populations as well as seasonally, however scientific observations on humpback whales in the North Atlantic show a strong preference for capelin. 

More On Humpback Whales Eating Fish

So I have been telling you about how humpback whales fish via phenomenal methods, it’s time we dive right into it because I’m sure you will find them equal parts jaw-dropping and amazing.

Let’s start with one of the most impressive hunting techniques employed by these cetaceans: 

the “bubble netting” method. When using this tactic around a dozen (sometimes more) whales will work together on a highly coordinated strategy that allows them to gorge on large schools of fish.  

The whales will form a circle under the fish school and blow bubbles to entrap them and force the prey closer together.

Once the fish can’t escape the vertical bubble walls, the whales will take turns swimming up from underneath them with their mouth open gobbling up their prey. 

There are many different variations to the “bubble net” and something I personally find pretty neat is that the behaviors are different for each humpback whale population suggesting it is purposely taught within whale pods.

Humpbacks will also frequently engage in solo-feeding within the pod by performing a behavior called “lob-tailing” by which they will forcefully slap the tail on the water surface to scare fish away from it and quickly swim below them only to lunge into the school with its mouth open.

Another interesting detail regarding humpback whales eating fish is the fact that they will NOT eat them for long periods of time as they fast while migrating to their breeding and calving grounds once a year.

This whale species performs one of the longest migrations known in the animal kingdom traveling as much as 8,000 km / almost 5,000 miles every year.

During their travels, humpback whales won’t eat and rely on fat reserves to provide enough energy to survive those months. 

There is, however, recent evidence that suggests some humpback whales will engage in opportunistic feeding during migration, while some individuals will not even migrate and just stay in their feeding grounds until the pod returns.

Final Thoughts

If you made it this far you already know that humpback whales do in fact eat fish, you also know that as the smart mammals they are, they have a lot of different and elaborate fishing techniques, and you know that they go through a fasting period.

You also learned about my personal favorite, the “bubble-netting” method which shows not only how smart humpback whales are, but also how efficiently they can communicate with each other. 

Yet what I hope is that besides the knowledge you have gained, you have also found yourself even more mesmerized by these beautiful giants and the fact that there is so much yet to learn.