What do Whales Eat?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
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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.


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Post 15

They also eat mysids and and isopods and plankton.

Post 10

@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.

Post 9

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.

Post 8

@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.

Post 7

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?

Post 5

@ 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.

Post 4

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.

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