Published: Wed, April 19, 2017
Science | By Hubert Green

Extremely rare vision emerges of Antarctic blue whales eating

The lovely sight of blue whales feeding in waters off Taranaki has been captured by researchers from a U.S. university using a drone.

Blue whales didn't become the largest animals ever to live on Earth by being dainty eaters and new video captured by scientists at Oregon State University shows just how they pick and choose their meals. The OSU team is trained to fly them over whales and was able to view blue whales from a unique perspective.

"Modelling studies of blue whales "lunge feeding" theorize that they will not put energy into feeding on low-reward prey patches", Leigh Torres, a principal investigator with the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State explained.

Blue whales are a type of baleen whale - they have long plates of "baleen" which hang in a row, like the teeth of a comb, from their upper jaws.

The researchers found that whales approach their feed at about 10.8 kilometers an hour, but opening their mouths to eat slows them down to about 1.8 kilometers an hour.

That effort, plus the energy required for an animal the size of three school buses to get back to cruising speed, meant the whales were required to make choices about which krill groups were more worthwhile to feed on.

Oregon State University used a drone to record the whales in glistening New Zealand waters. "And planes or helicopters can be invasive due to their noise".

'There's an oil and gas operation, there's a seabed mining permit application going on, there's a lot of vessel traffic - so amongst all of that activity, these animals need to be able to find their food and feed efficiently, ' Dr. Torres said.

"We can see the whale making choices which are really extraordinary because aerial observations of blue whales feeding on krill are rare".

They have long plates of "baleen" which hang in a row, like the teeth of a comb, from their upper jaws. "So the more we know about how they're finding food and what makes good food for them, it will help us be able to manage their population and make sure that human activities aren't impacting them too much".

Baleen whales strain huge volumes of ocean water through their baleen plates to capture food including krill, zooplankton and small fish.

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