What Do Whales Eat? And Other Facts About These Giant Mammals

Deepthi Reddy
Feb 01, 2023 By Deepthi Reddy
Originally Published on Oct 30, 2021
Fact-checked by Sakshi Raturi
A Baby Humpback Whale.

One of the most gigantic mammals on Earth is the blue whale, and it weighs more than or is equivalent to 40 fully-grown elephants.

An elephant is indeed the largest land-living animal. Did you know that the blue whale is the largest mammal existing on the face of the Earth today?

Sharks are aggressive, whereas whales are the most gentle mammals despite their massive size. We always talk about whale size but miss out on its brain and intelligence, which are vital behavioral traits of the group of Cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises). The name killer whale sounds terrifying.

However, most marine life in nature is quite the opposite. Have you ever watched the movie 'Free Willy'? In the killer whale movie, Willy is depicted as a gentle, thoughtful, naughty, and cheerful animal.

Killer whales also exhibit similar traits in real life. Whales have a high level of emotional intelligence compared to other animals. Aren't you curious to know what these giant yet sensible whales eat?

Read on to learn more about different types of whales and a whale's diet. If you enjoy this article, why not also read our articles what do starfish eat? Or what do dolphins eat? Here on Kidadl!

Do whales eat people?

Whales' feed varies based on the structure of their mouth. They feed on tiny krill, small schooling anchovies, herring, shrimps, sea lions or seals, small fish, plankton, squid, and other sea crustaceans.

Whales do not feed on people. Despite many stories and myths, there is no evidence of whales feeding on humans or their body parts.

There are a few incidents where killer whales in captivity injured their trainers, but they are not known to kill humans intentionally. Other whales in the wild may attack, mistaking humans for their hunting prey, but usually, they try to move away as soon as they realize they are near a human.

Baleen whales or blue whales look as if they can consume five humans at a time.

However, on the contrary, it's physically next to impossible for them to do it. These giant whales have a surprisingly small throat that is a foot long, allowing them to feed on giant squid, but they cannot consume humans through their mouths.

'Never judge a book by its cover' is quite a suitable statement in the case of blue whales. Blue whales are the largest marine mammals that are gigantic but timid and friendly.

They often create disturbance but stay away from trouble. A few whales are curious, follow ships in the sea, and tend to grab human attention with their whistle or blowing. Others, like orca whales, are mostly found in the North Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean.

Do whales eat sharks?

These marine mammals have excellent predatory skills to hunt their prey. They hunt in small family groups and they prey on different types of animals. In addition, killer whales attack other whale groups at times, placing them on top of the food chain as apex predators.

Killer whales species can eat sharks. They use the 'karate chop method' to slam hard with their tails, making the shark flip on its back and become immobile.

Then orca species attack the shark's underbelly and feed on it. These orca whales go hunting in family groups by swimming around the shark in circles and attacking its underbelly based on the prey's size. Sharks are not the primary diet of whales, and they do not attack them unless their primary food source is scarce or limited.

What do whales eat for dinner?

Whales are divided into two suborders based on their diet. A few whales have teeth that fall in Odontoceti (toothed whales), and Mysticeti (baleen whales) have baleen plates instead of teeth.

Baleen whales such as blue whales, minke whales, sei whales, humpback whales, and Bryde's whales have baleen plates and feed on plankton krill, small schooling fish, and shrimp usually found in massive swarms on the bottom of the ocean. These baleen plates act as a filter when they capture food with their mouth open.

Humpback baleen whales, hunt small fish and small sea creatures catching the groups by blowing bubbles.

Fish swim to the water surface, where humpback whales capture the fish with open mouths. Then, under the sea, these whales lunge at small fish through a 'net' of bubbles.

Toothed whales such as orca whales, beaked whales, gray whales, and right whales have teeth, and each species have their favorite food. They commonly feed on sea lions, octopus, seals, salmon, squid and sometimes hunt their own kind.

Are whales carnivores?

We tend to associate size with danger. For example, we assume big animals to be ferocious. However, we often see giant animals that can be quite harmless and small animals, which are aggressive and dangerous.

Most large, land-living species are herbivores, which are placed at the bottom of the food chain. The best example, a giant elephant is herbivorous, whereas a small leopard is a carnivore. Whales are carnivores.

Even filter feeders like baleen whales consume small fishes, crustaceans, shrimp, plankton, and krill. Toothed whales hunt penguins, seals, octopuses, and squids with their teeth. Killer whales feed on big fish or marine mammals like dolphins and walruses.

Do different types of whales eat different types of food?

A whale is a warm-blooded animal that falls under the group Cetaceans. At regular intervals, it comes to the surface to breathe. Whales are commonly found in near-polar regions such as Antarctica.

Whales live in freezing water, where the availability of food is challenging. Therefore, they eat continuously during summer and live through freezing winters (for about four months) without eating, or they munch on the limited food available.

Their blubber (whale fat) provides the required nutrients throughout the cold season. Baleen whales and toothed whales have different eating habits.

Based on the presence of teeth and filter baleen palates, their method of hunting and feeding differs. It is hard to imagine the amount of food required for giant whales to swim across the ocean, hunting and feeding continuously to support their tough marine existence.

The average food required for a blue whale is 2,000 lb (907 kg) of krill per day, equivalent to a fully grown elephant. Baleen whales include humpback whales, gray whales, right whales, and rorquals.

Their baleen is made up of fingernail-like bristles on thin, rigid plates hanging in the whale's top jaw. The small space between the plates helps to filter food from the water.

These species feed on small crustaceans, zooplankton, schooling fish like anchovies, squids, and krill. Humpback whales use the 'bubble net' feeding technique and typical surface feeding behavior.

Bubbles created by whales confuse schooling fishes, salmon fish pool, or herring, which enables them to indulge in lunge feeding. Hunting and swimming in the dark sea is a challenge for a whale.

A few toothed whales in deep, dark oceans use echolocation as a source to hunt and capture their prey. Hence, they emit sounds to detect prey and obstacles, just like the echolocation of bats.

Toothed whales have teeth, for example, killer whales, and beaked whales. Some whales, especially orca, hunt in groups depending on food availability. They feed on dolphins, sea birds, penguins, and other large mammals. They take chunks of meat in their mouths biting the prey piece by piece.

Do whales eat big fish?

Killer whales have good predatory hunting skills. Though they can hunt alone, they usually hunt in groups called pods. These pods consist of many family members, and the female whale takes the lead.

At times we can find scars on giant baleen whales as evidence of attacks made by killer whales. Whales eat big fishes such as great white sharks.

However, sharks are not their primary source of food. Due to food scarcity and compelling survival instincts, they attack and feed on other large predatory fishes, making them the apex predators in the food chain.

The World's Biggest Mammal

The largest land-living mammal is the African elephant which weighs up to 14,000 lb (6,350.2 kg).

Currently, Balaenoptera musculus (blue whale) is the largest mammal living on the earth. It weighs equivalent to 40 elephants, 30 Tyrannosaurus Rexes, or 2,670 fully grown humans.

They measure 98 ft (30 m) in length and 400,000 lb (181,436.9 kg) approximately. Balaenoptera musculus, the baleen whale, consumes around 7,936 lb (3,599.7 kg) of krill per day during the feeding season. Hence, they have effective echolocation skills.

Even their low-frequency whistles are heard from hundreds of miles away to communicate with other blue whales. With its gigantic mouth and a massive appetite, this whale can consume nearly 13,227 lb (6,000 kg) food per day during summer. They feed on tiny krill by gulping water, filtering the food in stiff bristles, and expelling excess water through blowholes.

Blue whales attain sexual maturity at 5-10 years. The gestational period is 12 months.

The baby whale is born tail-first and swims immediately to the water surface to breathe and suck on its mother's teats. They feed up to 47.5 gal (179.8 L) of fat-rich milk to grow 198.4 lb (90 kg) each day. Surprisingly, they have very tiny eyes, as small as a grapefruit.

Tear glands and eyelashes are absent. It has unique fingerprint skin markings and is bluish-gray.

The estimated population size of blue whales is 10,000 to 250,000, approximately. However, the whale population is declining due to whaling for their meat, body parts, and oil. They are currently listed as Endangered species in the IUCN's Red List.

Here at Kidadl, we have carefully created lots of interesting family-friendly facts for everyone to enjoy! If you like our suggestions for what whales eat, why not take a look at what carps eat or where sunflower seeds come from?

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Written by Deepthi Reddy

Master of Business Administration

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Deepthi ReddyMaster of Business Administration

With an MBA under her belt, Deepthi has discovered her true calling in content writing. Her writing repertoire is diverse, covering travel, movies, pet care, parenting, animals and birds, and more. Her joy of learning and creating has helped her craft well-written and engaging articles. When she isn't writing, Deepthi enjoys exploring new cultures, trying different foods, and spending quality time with her two children aged 7 and 12.

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Fact-checked by Sakshi Raturi

Postgraduate Diploma in Management

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Sakshi RaturiPostgraduate Diploma in Management

Sakshi has experience in marketing strategy, social media planning, and recruiting industry experts for capstone projects, she has displayed a commitment to enhancing their skills and knowledge. She has won multiple awards, including a Certificate of Appreciation for Creative Writing and a Certificate of Merit for Immaculate Turut, and is always seeking new opportunities to grow and develop.

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