Whales So Cool They’re Featured on BBC’s Planet Earth III: Humpback Trap Feeding

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Over the past decade on the BC coast, researchers noticed whales hanging vertically out of the water column, mouths gaping open. What were they up to?

The scientists at the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) aimed to figure it out. Now, these humpback whales, and MERS’ new understanding of them, will be featured in BBC’s Planet Earth III, out in the fall of 2023.

Innovators in the Ocean

And what were they up to? A novel way of catching food, named trap feeding, since it resembles a way a Venus flytrap catches food.

I’ve seen this myself, on our Desolation Sound and Fjords of BC trip that I took in the fall of 2022.

A whale hangs vertically in the water column, in a place where there are fish, flippers ready and mouth open. As fish swim in a school close to their mouths (perhaps escaping hunting seabirds), the whale uses its flippers to direct them into its mouth …a waiting trap. Then whoosh, it shuts its jaws, pushes out the water and swallows.

Behaviour Is Spreading

Back in 2011, only two whales in the area were known to feed like this. Four years later, 16 had taken up trap feeding. By 2020 at least 26 were doing it. Clearly, the technique was a success and other whales tried it.

The Broughton Archipelago, where these innovators are swimming. Photo Kevin Smith

Why Trap Feed?

Why? Wouldn’t you rather float while food moves into your mouth rather than chasing after it? Well… that is what researchers think is the reason for the technique: it’s more energetically efficient, and maybe a much better return on energy investment when the whales have less density of fish in the water.

More: You can read more about the whales’ behaviour and the research on MERS’ site.

See It with Us: And, you can join us for a special edition trip in October 2024 when a MERS researcher will be aboard with us, and showing us not only the whales behaviour but also teaching guests with hands on experiences in how to observe and collect the information. This trip is also a fundraiser for MERS.

BBC Planet Earth III:Finally, you can read MERS member Jackie Hildering’s post about the work on the BBC Planet Earth III series, which also involved local filmmaker Tavish Campbell (a beloved former Maple Leaf captain and expedition leader)!

Story by Maureen Gordon


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