Experiencing Humpback Whale Bubblenet Feeding

You hear the gasps of fellow passengers before you hear the commotion from the water.

“There!! Over there!”

“Oh, wow!”

“They’re doing it again. Did you catch that?”

It’s our fourth day on the water and it is here, in Icy Strait, Alaska, that I first experience bubblenet feeding. I have read about and seen footage of this remarkable phenomenon, but as with more remarkable events, this one needs to be experienced in person. My goal with this post is to light curiosity inside you, excite you and maybe, just maybe, get you up to Alaska to witness this spectacle for yourself. I receive no commission, no kickback. I’m not even mentioning which small cruise line I was on while taking these shots because that’s beside the point.

The point is, I knew about whales and kinda cared about them from a philosophical standpoint before my encounters in Alaska. Big, majestic creatures. Cute in a way. I got it.

After experiencing that majesty in person, up close, in real life 3D, I have a deeper appreciation for those whales and their habitat.

All that being said, this will be the closest you come to whales today, I’m guessing. My photos can’t do them justice, but I hope they can start to stir something in you.

A note on bubblenet feeding: This technique is not used by all whales and only a handful of whales in Alaska actually congregate to practice this feeding frenzy. Humpback whales, by nature, are solitary feeders in the waters of Alaska’s Inside Passage during the summer months before heading South to Hawaii or Mexico. But once in a while, we still don’t know how, really, some whales will coordinate their feeding into this technique.

It starts with all the whales in the hunt taking a deep breath and diving deep. On the surface you may not see the whales for 1-3 minutes, maybe more. Then, if the water is calm, you will notice a peculating of the surface, followed by wide open mouths jutting to the sky. Some raise 10 or more feet out of the water as they top off on fish.

What you missed below the surface was a whale, or whales, slowly exhaling while swimming in a circle. This loose ring of bubbles floats up under a school of small fish of various kinds and, acting on instinct, the fish gather together…safety in numbers. Or so they hope. If you are lucky enough to have a hydrophone under the surface you can hear one whale signal the charge. A long, deep note. It sent my flesh to goosebumps when I first heard it.

With the signal given, all whales swim up through the bubbles, mouths agape, and slurp up all the fish they can, breaking the surface before sliding back below the waves to swallow their catch.

It’s amazing. Please go see it.

{NOTE: Humpback whale’s mouths open near the top of their head. In the images you will see an enlarged pouch under this, much like a bullfrog, and that holds extra water to catch more fish and krill while feeding.}

How many fish can you count in that last image?

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