In Hot Pursuit

Bryde's whales rocket through Pacific shallows to gorge on fish.

This story appears in the October 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The ocean off Baja erupts like a torpedo range. A long, lean whale shoots up from the deep, chasing thousands of mackerel and sardines as they're driven toward the surface by marlins and sea lions. Suddenly it lunges at the biggest mass of fish, mouth opening wide, throat pouch ballooning with seawater. Even against the tremendous drag created by its gaping maw, flicks of the whale's muscular tail power it through the water. Its jaw snaps shut in an explosion of bubbles. Other hunters circle nearby, waiting for a turn at the feast.

Named for a Norwegian whaling entrepreneur nearly a century ago, Bryde's (pronounced BROO-duhz) are baleen whales, which use meshlike mouth plates to filter food from the sea. "But they're hardly bloated, plankton-straining beasts puttering along at the surface," says photographer Doug Perrine. "They're sleek, predatory missiles," targeting larger, more mobile prey than some other baleen species. Perrine and colleagues were shooting marlins when they saw the rarely photographed whales. Diving with them "was like being on train tracks in the fog," Perrine says, "knowing a high-speed locomotive could appear in an instant," from any direction, without any warning sound.

Surprisingly little is known for sure about this species. Lacking thick layers of valuable blubber, Bryde's weren't much targeted by whalers. They've had scant attention from scientists, in part because they can be tough to find. Bryde's travel solo or in small pods and can dive to a thousand feet. Reported mostly in warm, equatorial waters, they probably breed year-round and may use low-frequency calls to find each other across great distances. But details of their movements, mating habits, and population status are sketchy, and sometimes inferred from better-known kin—making a wild encounter with Bryde's in the vast, blue ocean even sweeter.