How Humpbacks Hunt With Bubbles

Humpbacks whales blow bubbles around schools of fish to concentrate them for easier capture. Although this hunting technique, called bubble-net feeding, has been documented for decades, just how whales make the nets wasn't well-understood until now, says David Wiley, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

IRA FLATOW, host: Joining us now is Flora. Welcome, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Were you listening in on that conversation?

LICHTMAN: I was listening in. And this is on topic, the Pick of the Week this week - at least follows pretty well. More fascinating undersea news, this time about humpback whales.

FLATOW: She talked about the beluga whale.

LICHTMAN: Right.

FLATOW: You're talking about the humpback.

LICHTMAN: Right, right. The humpback is slightly different. It - it's a very aggressive predator, apparently, in all oceans. And so that means that it has to come up with tricks to catch fish, or at least that's how Dave Wiley, a whale biologist, described it.

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow with Flora Lichtman, our multimedia editor, talking about humpback whales. And you've shown what it's like in a day in the life of the scientist, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: Yeah. I mean, you know, people say science is not, like, glorious. But a day in the life of Dave Wiley seems pretty good to me. And we - he took us - he showed us video of whale tagging expeditions.

FLATOW: They tag the whales?

LICHTMAN: Yes. So they go in these little RIB boats, these little motorboats in the ocean. And they've got, you know, 14-foot poles or so. And they smack on the back of the whale - they would say, you know, lightly tap...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: ...these tags that allow them to see what the whale is kind of doing underwater. It's not a video, but its position in space and it has microphones on it, underwater microphones. And what they were really interested in, in this latest study that they published in the journal Behavior, is how humpback whales catch fish using bubbles.

FLATOW: Bubbles. They catch fish with bubbles.

LICHTMAN: It's so surprising to me. It's called bubble net feeding.

FLATOW: They make a net out of bubbles, basically.

LICHTMAN: Yes. So apparently - and people, according to Wiley, have known this for decades but they - these humpback whales encircles schools of fish, blowing bubbles around them, and the fish won't pass through this wall of bubbles and the bubbles can get as big as volleyballs.

FLATOW: So the whales are acting as a team then, making...

LICHTMAN: It's usually one whale, but there is some cooperation. But they do sort of this spiral motion.

FLATOW: And it sort of confuses the fish or they don't know how to get out of the wall of bubbles?

LICHTMAN: They don't know, exactly. They don't pass through it. They just stop and then the humpback whale comes down and then up through the, sort of, cylinder with its mouth open...

FLATOW: And it's got a big mouth.

LICHTMAN: ...big mouth, carload of water it can take in.

FLATOW: And it scoops up the whole bunch of fish at once?

LICHTMAN: Right.

FLATOW: Wow.

LICHTMAN: That is bubble net feeding.

FLATOW: And if you go to our website at sciencefriday.com, it's our Video Pick of the Week, and Flora has got it up there. You can watch it. You can also download it on your iPods and watch it there, on your iPhone. And it's a huge whoosh of water.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. If you're a whaleophile, this is a good video for you because there's a lot of cool footage from these whale biologists, coming out of the water. I mean, also, you know, it's kind of an amazing thing that they're this nimble. This is a 50-foot-long animal.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: For it to be able to sort of spin like that is kind of remarkable. And what they did is showed underwater what these whales are doing using these sort of fancy tags and custom visualization software.

FLATOW: I thought it was - it's interesting how they technologically figured out how to get the tag on the whale. It's not with a hook or anything.

LICHTMAN: Suction cups.

FLATOW: They have suction cups. So they smack the whales.

LICHTMAN: One of those darts, you know, like this dart gun with the suction.

FLATOW: Oh, you mean like we used to have a bow and arrow with a suction cup on the end?

LICHTMAN: Exactly.

FLATOW: So they have a long pole with a suction cup on the end.

LICHTMAN: Right. But there's all this timing involved. It's, you know, when the whale back is exposed. And you actually see in this video, sort of, someone coaching a new whale tagger through the process, like wait for it, wait for it. Now, now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: And then they also created a visual computer-generated sequence of what's going on underwater that you can't see. But they created that for you.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. I mean, that is, I think, kind of the other part of this science that's really impressive. You can - because of this software, you can actually kind of see what the whale would be doing. It's like an animation of a whale underwater. And you can hear the sounds that they're hearing, so you can actually hear, kind of, the trickle of the bubbles.

FLATOW: Yeah. Do we have trickle of the bubbles there?

LICHTMAN: We do on our website.

FLATOW: On our website.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Go to our website. It's the - it's all up there. No trickle on the radio. Our website, it's sciencefriday.com. And you can watch the video. It's really interesting if you like whales, you like to watch how they make this wall of bubbles. One whale can catch a whole school of fish.

LICHTMAN: It's - they can catch a big mouthful. And here's a, one fun fact I want to leave people with, because this blew my mind. Whales apparently have a - are right-handed, most of them, in the same proportion as humans. And so the direction that they turn in this spiral bubble-making net sequence is their handedness. They've never seen a left-handed whale make a bubble net, but I'm sure they will keep looking for that.

FLATOW: Nine percent.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: It's a small sample size.

FLATOW: They are. They - that's right. They're not fish. They sort of have fans - that sort of thing.

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: That's terrific. Our Video Pick of the Week, it's up there on our website. It's - you watch the whales catching fish with a bubble net. Flora Lichtman, our Video Pick of the Week. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

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