Bubble Net Feeding: What is it?

People usually eat their food with utensils or their hands, but how do some humpback whales do it? By bubble-net feeding!


What is it?

Bubble-net feeding is a cooperative hunting strategy that occurs within a group of whales. It is a complex, highly synchronized set of behaviors that involve communication and cooperation, demonstrating signs of high social intelligence.


How it works

To bubble-net feed, whales dive deep below schools of fish and use bubbles blown from their blowholes to stun and trap fish closer to the surface. One whale generally leads the effort followed by the rest of the group. The leader will usually be responsible for blowing the bubbles and the other members will surround the fish, following them to the surface by swimming in spiral patterns to keep the fish trapped.

Humpback whales are known as “gulpers”, which means they feed by leaving their mouths open, swallowing everything in their paths before closing their mouths, pushing water out through their baleen plates and swallowing the critters (usually fish and small crustaceans) they caught. During bubble net feeding, the whales swimming toward the surface will have their mouths open and gulp fish from the school they have corralled.


How do we know?

Marine mammal and animal behavior researchers use observation for many kinds of studies, which is how we came to know the complexities of bubble net feeding. Dr. David Wiley, an affiliate of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, lead research specifically on this feeding strategy used by humpback whales. In his findings, he noted whales continuing to blow seltzer-sized bubbles while swimming in upward spirals to corral and capture fish. He also noticed that humpback whales have to work in teams of at least two individuals to be able to bubble-net feed.