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What Do Baleen & Toothed Whales Eat?

a bird sitting on top of a body of water

If you love the ocean, you probably know there are two main types of whales: baleen and toothed. As these names suggest, toothed whales have teeth, and baleen whales do not. So, how does a baleen whale eat, and what do toothed whales eat? Here’s a complete guide to help you understand more about these enchanting creatures.

Facts About Toothed Whales

Toothed whales include dolphins, porpoises, killer whales, sperm whales, and more. These marine mammals all have teeth and use them to eat fish and squid. Some animals in this group are small, such as the vaquita, a 5-foot-long porpoise. Other animals are gigantic, such as the sperm whale, which grows to more than 65 feet long.

When toothed whales capture prey, they use their jaws and teeth to break down their food into smaller pieces that are easy to swallow.

Orcas, also called killer whales, are apex predators, meaning no other animal hunts them. Killer whales have been known to hunt and eat great white sharks and giant whales such as blue whales.

Facts About Baleen Whales

Baleen whales include animals such as humpback whales, gray whales, and blue whales. These whales do not have teeth. Instead, they have a filter-feeding system of baleen, which are plates of bristle-like keratin arranged on the upper jaw.

So, what do whales eat when they don’t have teeth? Using their unique filter-feeding system, baleen whales eat krill, small fish, and copepods, tiny crustaceans. A baleen whale feeds by taking a massive gulp of seawater into its mouth and then pushing its tongue up to force the water past the baleen filters. Krill and fish get stuck behind the baleen, allowing the whale to swallow large amounts simultaneously.

animal on the water

Humpback Whale Feeding Sightings

Humpback whales travel to specific parts of the ocean to feed on krill and schools of small fish. During the summer and fall, the waters off the San Diego coast are full of krill, making it the perfect place to see humpback whales feeding.

During migration and breeding, humpback whales generally don’t eat much. So when they stop near San Diego to feed on krill off the coast, they typically try to eat as much as possible. Researchers refer to this as a “feast or famine” lifecycle. While it may sound harsh for the whales, it does give people in San Diego plenty of opportunities to see these incredible animals.

Baleen Whale Feeding Behaviors

Look out for exciting whale behaviors when you’re on the water during a whale-watching trip. While feeding, humpback whales may lunge out of the water to fill their mouths with krill. Other species of baleen whales skim the water with their mouths open or use bubbles to corral schools of fish and krill into rich food banquets. Gray whales are bottom feeders, meaning they filter mud and bottom near the ocean floor for their food.

Baleen whales may gather together in one area if there is enough food. That means you may see other forms of whale communication, such as tale and flipper slapping, spouting, and breaching.

Tips for Going Whale Watching

During baleen whale feeding season, you can take a whale-watching trip to see these magnificent animals in their natural habitat. For San Diego, summer and fall are the best times of year to see humpbacks and blue whales. You may spot gray whales in the coastal waters from December to April.

Remember to wear sunscreen and protective clothing during your trip and prepare for changes in the weather. Choose clothing you can layer easily and wear comfortable, sturdy shoes on board the vessel. 

Seeing whales in the wild is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Book a whale-watching trip today to encounter these amazing animals in their natural habitats.