Elaine Bechler: Phenomenal Feeding Frenzy, July 25, 2011


NOAA Teacher at Sea
Elaine Bechler
Aboard R/V Fulmar
July 21 – 26, 2011 

Mission: Survey of Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones NMS
Geographical Area of Cruise:  Pacific Ocean, Off the California Coast
Date: July 25, 2011 

Science and Technology Log

Humpbacks performing vertical lunge feeding

Cool stuff today.  While transiting between one transect and another, the R/V Fulmar happened upon a major feeding event.  While approaching, hundreds of birds could be seen flying and diving along with evidence of many humpback whale spouts.  It turned out to be a furious feeding frenzy of myriads of birds, dolphins, pinipeds and whales.  Very dramatic was the vertical lunge feeding of the humpback whales.  We could see their huge mouths open and pointed upward as they gobbled silvery fish.  The whales would release huge loud exhales over and over.  A pod of 20 Pacific white-sided dolphins would lunge and dive down randomly seeking the swift swimmers.  Entering from the north side came a pod of Northern-right whale dolphins so sleek and moving in a group as if choreographed.  Thousands of seabirds including Sooty and Pink footed Shearwaters, Northern Fulmars, Black-footed Albatrosses, Western Gulls, Fork-tailed Storm Petrels and Common Murres were diving and competing for the fish.  We could hear the feet, wings, beaks and calls from their interactions on the surface.   It was remarkable to see the shearwaters swimming after the prey.  The feeding group would move and change as the school of fish darted about from below.  It was a tumultuous feast.

Bird feeding frenzy

shearwater feeding under water

Shearwater feeding under water

What we witnessed was the food web in action!  Each of these animals was supported by the fish they were eating.  Those fish were supported by a smaller food source such as smaller fish and zooplankton.  Those small organisms rely on the phytoplankton to capture the solar radiation from the sun and to use the deep water nutrients which were upwelled to the surface waters.   Create 5 food chains 5 organisms long that could have been in place in the ocean that day.

Dall's Porpoise

Dall's Porpoise

Earlier I noted a Western Gull spy a white object in the water and attempt to land on it for feeding only to find it was a piece of paper.  I had never observed the interaction of a marine animal with marine debris until now.  It was obvious that the debris caught the gull’s attention from a good distance away and had attracted it to the surface of the water.  How could this action affect the food web?

I feel fortunate to have been chosen to experience this cruise and all that went along with it.  I’d do it again in a heartbeat (with sufficient amounts of  seasickness medication!).  Thank you R/V Fulmar crew, ACCESS team, PRBO Conservation Science , TAS team and NOAA for this opportunity.  Thank you Sophie Webb for all of the photos of the frenzy on this page.

Pacific White-sided dolphins and Kaitlin

Pacific White-sided dolphins and Kaitlin

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