10 Wonderful Facts About Whales
Whales- or the group of animals called cetaceans- are absolutely incredible creatures! Despite being mammals that breathe air and have warm blood, they live their entire lives underwater. As a marine mammal naturalist, I love sharing information about whales with people. There are many reasons why whales matter and why they are just awesome animals.
1. Without Whales We Wouldn't be Breathing
50-70% of the oxygen we breathe come from the ocean- or more specifically microscopic organisms called phytoplankton. Not only to phytoplankton produce oxygen, they also reduce carbon dioxide in the environment and they are also the base of the entire ocean ecosystem. But phytoplankton need one vital source of energy in order to function- whale poop! Without whale poop, there would be no phytoplankton and without phytoplankton we would have a lot less oxygen and a lot less fish!
2. Dolphins are Whales
Dolphins are whales, but not all whales are dolphins. All cetaceans are either toothed whales or baleen whales; dolphins have teeth and belong to the toothed whale parvorder called “odontoceti.” Orca, sperm whales and beaked whales are also part of this group!
3. Whales are Large
Baleen whales are large, with average sizes comparable to school buses. Blue whales in particular are large. Adult blue whales can grow up to lengths of over 100 feet and weigh more than 300,000 pounds. That’s larger than the largest dinosaur! The longest blue whale ever measured was 111’ feet. In the whaling days their numbers were decimated and sadly they remain an endangered species. There are a few places around the world where you can see them while whale watching (blog post coming soon on that). If you have the opportunity to see them, take it! They are truly breathtaking to see in person.
4. Whales Live Long Lives
Many whale species have average lifespans comparable to our own. The longest lived whales- bowhead whales- are thought to over 200 years! In 2007 a bowhead was discovered with the remnants of a harpoon dating between 1885-1895. Spurred by this startling evidence, scientists studied the ages of other bowheads and found some to have similar ages.
5. Whales Keep Things in Balance
Whales also play important roles as predators in the ocean and ensure that certain species do not get overpopulated. Toothed whales eat a variety of prey including squid, schooling fish, large fish and in the case of killer whales, seals, sea lions and sharks. Baleen whales filter feed on small creatures. Being larger in size, they need a larger amount of food. For example, the blue whale can eat as much as 40 million krill (small shrimp-like organisms) in a single day. If blue whales were to go extinct, can you imagine how much krill would be out there?
6. Toothed Whales Have a Super Power
Dolphins, beaked whales, beluga, sperm whales and other toothed whales have an amazing ability called echolocation. Clicks made in the nasal passage are focus in a certain direction by a massive tissue in the forehead called the melon. Those sound waves will bounce back off of whatever object is in front of them such as prey, boats, rocks and other dolphin. The returning sound waves get absorbed into their lower jaws and they are delivered to the inner ear. This highly sophisticated process is essentially a biological sonar system!
7. Whales Support Economies
Whale watching has grown into a very popular activity both for tourism and local communities. The growth of interest in whale watching all over the world supports local economies and helps establish new travel destinations. Here in the U.S. there is a history of whaling but many coastal communities now boom with whale watching- what a difference! Despite an international whaling ban and international criticism, there are a few places around the world that still practice whaling or dolphin hunting. How amazing would it be of those places converted to watching whales instead of killing them?
8. Whales are Smart
Several cetacean species exhibit signs of brilliance such as cooperative hunting behaviors, but dolphins in particular are highly intelligent and self aware. The encephalization quotient (brain size average to body size) of dolphins is second only to humans! They live in social groups and communicate with each other in a “language” of clicks and whistles, use tools and create group hunting methods that they pass on to their offspring. Mother dolphins even give their babies a “signature whistle” or a name that they use for the rest of their lives.
9. Whales are Pro Divers
Despite being animals that breathe air, whales are designed to a live underwater. Specially adapted lungs help whales hold their breath for extended amounts of time. Perfectly placed blowholes on the back of their heads allow them to breathe without having to come all the way out of the water. One species in particular is exceptional at deep dives. The Cuvier’s beaked whale holds the record for deepest dives. In a recent study, scientists found that one individual that dove to 9,816 feet (2,992 meters), while a second stayed down for 138 minutes!
10. Whales are Survivors
Whales were heavily hunted around the world for hundreds of years. Their oil was used for lamps and lighting, and it was in high demand. Whales are slow to mature and reproduce, making their populations difficult to recover from depletion. Many species became endangered as a result of whaling- particularly from commercial whaling in the early 1900’s. Thankfully the U.S. outlawed whaling in 1971 and later put protections for marine mammals into law. The International Whaling Commission put a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982 and since then the majority of whale populations have started to recover. Some are doing better than others. For example, the population of gray whales that migrates from Alaska to Mexico has rebounded so well (to over 20,000) that they were removed from the endangered species list. However, their counterparts on the other side of the pacific have not done so well. Their population still struggles with an estimated 130 individuals currently alive. Although largely protected from whaling, whales still face many human threats such as entanglement in fishing gear, habitat loss and rick of vessel collision.
I hope these have inspired you to hop on a whale watching trip or to pop in a whale documentary. Cetaceans are truly incredible and unique animals.