Speedy whales - the Cheetas of the Sea

18 May 2008


When they are hunting, pilot whales may sprint after their prey in incredible bursts of speed in the dark depths of ocean, just like speedy cheetahs do on land.

Pilot Whales, mother and calf, Kona, Hawaii.That's according to Natacha Aguilar Soto from La Laguna University in Spain, and colleagues from Woods Hole in the US and Aarhus University in Denmark who have been studying pilot whales off the coast of the Canary Islands in the Atlantic.

Studying the foraging behaviour of deep sea creatures like whales is obviously a huge challenge. So to find out more about how whales catch they food, this team attached electronic tags to 23 pilot whales to record how fast they were swimming, how deep they swam and in which direction, as well as any noises they emit while looking for prey.

What the researchers have discovered is that far from being energy-saving slow-swimmers, pilot whales can swim incredibly fast. They can plunge down to a kilometre in just fifteen minutes, and it seems, just like a cheetah, when they spot prey they will dash after it in a sustained burst of speed.

Cheetahs can sprint over short distances at about 60 miles an hour, which whales don't quite top. But they do speed up to 9 metres per second, or around 20 miles an hour, and keep it up for 200 metres before either catching the prey or giving up.

And we know that they are feeding because of the noises they make. Like bats in the air, whales use sonar to locate their prey, and as they home in on a tasty morsel they send a barrage of hi pitched clicks to help pinpoint its location.

All this deep sea speed comes as quite a surprise because scientists previously expected that whales would try to save oxygen by swimming slower for longer. But now it seems their behaviour might be better suited for sprinting after fast-moving prey like the incredible giant squid that has recently been thawed in New Zealand.


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