Oceanography The Official Magazine of
The Oceanography Society
Volume 22 Issue 01

View Issue TOC
Volume 22, No. 1
Pages 206 - 209


Thermal Footprints of Whales

James Churnside Lev OstrovskyTim Veenstra
First Paragraph

Under the right meteorological conditions, whales can leave a trail of cool spots on the ocean surface that are detectable in infrared images. When the wind is light and the sun is shining, the surface water warms to produce a thermal gradient in the top few meters of the ocean. Under these conditions, whales swimming near the surface produce a jet of cooler water with each upward motion of the tail fluke. When this jet reaches the surface, it will produce a temperature difference that can persist for several minutes. In this paper, we report the first observations of these thermal footprints; we discovered them in infrared images made by a camera mounted in a light twin-engine airplane. We also describe their formation and dissipation.


Churnside, J., L. Ostrovsky, and T. Veenstra. 2009. Thermal footprints of whales. Oceanography 22(1):206–209, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2009.20.


Corkeron, P.J., and R.C. Connor. 1999. Why do baleen whales migrate? Marine Mammal Science 15:1,228–1,245.

Cuyler, L.C., R. Wiulsrød, and N.A. Øritsland. 1992. Thermal infrared radiation from free living whales. Marine Mammal Science 8:120–134.

Fish, F.E. 2004. Structure and mechanics of nonpiscine control surfaces. IEEE Journal of Oceanic Engineering 29:605–621.

Jessup, A.T., C.J. Zappa, M.R. Loewen, and V. Hesany. 1997. Infrared remote sensing of breaking waves. Nature 385:52–55.

Jurasz, C.M., and V.P. Jurasz. 1979. Feeding modes of the humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae, in southeast Alaska. Scientific Reports of the Whales Research Institute 31:69–83.

Monin, A.S., and A.M. Yaglom. 1971. Statistical Fluid Mechanics: Mechanics of Turbulence. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 782 pp.

Motani, R. 2002. Scaling effects in caudal fin propulsion and the speed of ichthyosaurs. Nature 415:309–312.

National Marine Fisheries Service. 2005. Recovery Plan for the North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis). National Marine Fisheries Service, Silver Spring, MD, 137 pp.

Perryman, W.L., M.A. Donahue, J.L. Laake, and T.E. Martin. 1999. Diel variation in migration rates of eastern Pacific gray whales measured with thermal imaging sensors. Marine Mammal Science 15:426–445.

Rohr, J.J., and F.E. Fish. 2004. Strouhal numbers and optimization of swimming by odontocete cetaceans. Journal of Experimental Biology 207:1,633–1,642.

Stuart-Menteth, C., I.S. Robinson, R.A. Weller, and C.J. Donlon. 2005. Sensitivity of the diurnal warm layer to meteorological fluctuations. Part 1: Observations. Journal of Atmospheric and Ocean Science 10:193–208.

Thomas, G.L., and R.M. Thorne. 2001. Night-time predation by Steller sea lions. Nature 411:1013.

Winn, H.E., and N.E. Reichley. 1985. Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). Pp. 241–273 in Handbook of Marine Mammals, Vol. 3: The Sirenians and Baleen Whales. S.H. Ridgway and R. Harrison, eds, Academic Press, London.

Copyright & Usage

This is an open access article made available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution, and reproduction in any medium or format as long as users cite the materials appropriately, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate the changes that were made to the original content. Images, animations, videos, or other third-party material used in articles are included in the Creative Commons license unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If the material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons license, users will need to obtain permission directly from the license holder to reproduce the material.