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Facts about whales

Why are whales special? They live their whole lives in water and have a lot of amazing qualities. Although they couldn’t look more different than human beings, we have so much in common!

Whales are mammals just like we are. Just like us, they breathe air, have hair, are warm-blooded, give birth to live young, and feed their young milk.

Whales are unique, beautiful, graceful and mysterious; they nurture, form friendships, innovate, grieve, play, sing and cooperate with one another. Here are some extraordinary facts about whales and their lives in the oceans.

Humpback whale
Narwhal spyhopping out of the ice

How many types of whales are there?

To be honest, we only have estimates as scientists are still discovering new species and subspecies! In fact, an entirely new species of baleen whale was recognised in the Gulf of Maine in 2021!

The Society of Marine Mammalogy currently recognizes 90 species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises, collectively known as “cetaceans”.

Cetaceans are broadly divided into two groups, depending on whether they have teeth (odontocetes) or baleen (mysticetes).

Baleen whales are sometimes called the ‘great whales’ due to their overall larger size. There are 15 species of baleen whales. These whales have baleen plates in their mouths to sift their food - plankton, krill (little shrimps) and small fish - from seawater.

Toothed whales account for most species of cetaceans and include everything from the massive sperm whale to beaked whales and all dolphins and porpoises. Toothed whales eat mainly larger fish, squid, octopus and some eat other marine mammals but their teeth are not for chewing. In fact, the spiral tusk of a narwhal is actually a massive tooth!

So which cetaceans do we call ‘whales’ versus 'dolphins' or 'porpoises'? It isn’t very scientific but whales typically include all the baleen whales and the larger toothed whales such as the sperm whale, beluga, narwhal, and the beaked whales. Smaller toothed cetaceans include what we commonly refer to as dolphins or porpoises. However, Orcas, the world’s largest dolphin is routinely called a whale!

What is the difference between a dolphin and a porpoise? In general, dolphins are larger, have a more pronounced beak (snout) and have conical teeth while the smaller and flatter faced porpoises also have flatter (spade) teeth.

How do whales feed?

Baleen whales and toothed whales feed very differently. While tooth whales are grabbers and suckers, baleen whales are either skimmers, suckers or gulpers!

Toothed whales (including dolphins and porpoises) all have teeth but the number, size and position, and even purpose of their teeth, varies from species to species. Some, like Orcas, use their teeth for grabbing while the long tusk of a male narwhal acts as a sensory organ and may help them “taste” the surrounding waters. One thing they have in common is that they do not use their teeth to chew their food!  Toothed whales do not have molars for chewing their food, they swallow it whole or in large chunks. Some toothed whales use their tongues as pistons to suck in the food, using their teeth more socially than for feeding. One thing all toothed whales have in common is their sophisticated sonar systems called echolocation. This helps them find and target their prey which typically consists of fish, squid and octopus. However, some Orcas also are known to eat sharks and even other marine mammals.

Instead of teeth, baleen whales have hundreds of overlapping baleen plates grow downwards from the gums of the whale’s upper jaw. The number, size, and color of the baleen plates are unique for each whale species. The hairy fringe on the inside of the baleen plates earned these whales their scientific name “mysticete”, or moustached whales. Baleen is made out of keratin, the same protein that makes up our fingernails and hair. Being strong and flexible, baleen makes the perfect filter, or colander, enabling whales to strain out sea water and keep the prey.  

Baleen whales are typically categorized as skimmers, gulpers, or suckers. Skimmers, like North Atlantic right whales, swim through patches of plankton with their mouths open as the water washes through the baleen, the tiny plankton are caught by the baleen and remain trapped in the their mouths. Gulpers are rorqual whales. Rorqual whales like blue and humpback whales have a series of pleats running from their lower jaw to the belly button which expand when they are filled with water. They close down with their upper jaw and force the water through the baleen, capturing fish or krill. Gray whales are suckers, they literally suck amphipods from the bottom of the ocean taking in mouthfuls of mud and food before forcing the water, sand and mud through their baleen as they capture their prey.

Whale records

Some amazing figures from the world of whales.

species of whale
Baleen of bowhead whale
metres long
Blue whale heart pumps
litres around the body
Cuvier's beaked whale dives
Sperm whale brain
kg in weight
Fin whales can swim
kph in short bursts

The biggest whale

Which is the biggest whale?

The blue whale is not only the biggest whale living today but the biggest creature ever to have lived on earth. They are mind-bogglingly gigantic - much larger than any of the dinosaurs. Blue whales and the other ocean giants live their whole lives in seawater, where their bodies are fully supported. What magnificent, incredible creatures they are!

Blue whales can reach the colossal length of 98ft (29.9m), longer than a basketball court or two school buses back to back! Blue whales in the Southern Hemisphere are generally larger than those in the Northern Hemisphere and female blues are larger than males.

Blue whales are now rare due to widespread commercial whaling. Many populations were driven to near extinction while some distinct populations may have been wiped out completely.

Which whale has the biggest baby?

Not surprisingly perhaps, the biggest mothers on earth give birth to the biggest babies. A newborn blue whale is 23 feet (7m) long and weighs up to three tons (5950lbs or 2700kg),which is about the size of a full grown hippo! For the first six or seven months of life, a baby blue whale drinks about 100-150 gallons (380-570 liters) of his or her mom's fat-laden milk (it is 35-50% fat) every day, (about enough to fill a bath). The baby can gain up to 10lbs (4.5kg) an hour or over 250lbs (113kg) every day. In other words the baby puts on over a ton in weight every 10 days!

A blue whale baby is typically weaned at 6-7 months old at which point they have doubled in length. The mother and baby often stay together for about a year in total and the youngster will reach sexual maturity at 5-10 years old. Blue whales are thought to live for at least 80 years.

A blue whale mother with her calf swimming at the surface of the water

Who has the largest brain?

The largest brain on earth belongs to the sperm whale. The volume of their super-sized brains is almost 500 cubic inches, which is more than five times the volume of ours - 80 cubic inches. A sperm whale’s brain weighs up to 9kg (almost 20lbs) which is the weight of a small dog and 6 times heavier than a human brain.

In evolutionary terms, we humans have only had big brains for about 200,000 years. In contrast, the current size of the sperm whale brain has changed little from that of its cetacean ancestors, which evolved some 55 million years ago.

Sperm whales have huge heads – they account for up to a third of their overall body length. Most of the space inside their heads is taken up not by their brains but by a large cavity filled with yellowish fine oil called spermaceti. This oil was valuable to whalers who sold it for oil lamp fuel, to make candles, creams, and ointments. The sperm whale’s unique spermaceti organ plays an important role in echolocation (whale navigation and ability to ‘see with sound’).

Whale song

A whale song is a long, patterned sequence of sounds. Whale songs are not genetically hard-wired like mating calls. Their songs are complex and must be learned from other whales. Blue whales, fin whales, bowhead whales, minke whales, sperm whales, and humpback whales all sing. Humpback whale songs have even appeared in the album charts.

Longest and Most Complex Songs

Male humpback whales are the best-known singers. Their songs are beautiful, complex, and ever-evolving. Their songs can last for up to 30 minutes and feature various themes sung in a sequence that is common to all males in the same breeding area that year. The sounds they sing span 7 octaves, nearly the entire range of a piano. During the winter mating season, they repeat their songs over and over for hours at a time and gradually change them as the breeding season progresses. Each year a new song is produced.

Simplest Songs

To humans the simplest-sounding songs are sung by fin whales. Singing fin whales produce repetitive, powerful low frequency pulses and so their songs feature a simple, long down sweep in frequency and often a simultaneous high frequency part, both are repeated over and over. It is thought that the fin whale song is part of a mating display.

Lowest Songs

The lowest frequency songs are sung by blue whales and scientists have discovered that their voices are getting lower and deeper each year. Blue whales are also loud - their sounds have measured to reach 186 decibels (only the sperm whale is louder).

Scientists have discovered that blues can sing for days and have found 11 different song types around the world that may correspond to distinct populations of blue whales. They have also found that blue whales migrate over large distances and produce songs throughout the year - at their tropical breeding grounds, during migration, and on their feeding grounds.

Most diverse songs

Bowheads have the greatest number and diversity of songs of all whales and they like to improvise, just like jazz musicians. In fact the diversity and variability of their songs is rivaled only by a few species of songbirds!

Recent studies recording bowhead whales singing all winter long under the Arctic ice have revealed that they are creative singers. Bowhead whales sing most frequently from October through April during the near full darkness of the polar winter. Unlike other whales, bowheads produce lots of different songs each year and their songs are rich with variation. Bowhead songs completely change within years and between years. Scientists have identified 184 distinct melodies recorded in one area over a three year period.

More research is required to further understand the purpose of the singing and reason for the song diversity. It is also unknown if both males and females sing or, as in humpbacks, it is only the males singing.

bowhead whale

Evolution of whales

How did whales evolve?

Looking at a whale’s body and biology, there are plenty of clues that their ancestors lived on land. They breathe air and nurse their young with their own milk, they also have paddle-shaped flippers which encase hand bones with ‘fingers’. As embryos, whales have tiny back limbs which disappear before birth. Though some whales still have free floating vestigial pelvic bones.

Hippos are the closest living relatives of whales, but they are not the ancestors of whales. Both hippos and whales evolved from four-legged, even-toed, hoofed (ungulate) ancestors that lived on land about 50 million years ago. Modern-day ungulates include hippopotamuses, giraffes, deer, pigs, and cows. Unlike the hippo’s ancestor, whale ancestors moved to the sea and evolved into swimming creatures over a period of about 8 million years.

Fossils of gigantic ancient whales called Basilosaurus were first mistaken for dinosaur fossils, but were later recognized as mammals. These prehistoric whales were more elongated than modern whales and had small back legs and front flippers. Their nostrils were situated halfway between the tip of the snout and the forehead and they had ear bones just like those of modern whales. Basilosaurus shows the link or intermediate between whales and their terrestrial ungulate ancestors.

The theory is that some land-living ungulates favored munching on plants at the water’s edge which had the added advantage of allowing them to easily hide from danger in shallow water. Over time their descendants spent more and more time in the water and their bodies became adapted for swimming. Their front legs became flippers and a thick layer of fat called blubber replaced their fur coats to keep them warm and streamlined. Eventually, their tails became bigger and stronger for powerful swimming and their back legs shrunk. Gradually, their nostrils moved to the top of their heads so that they could breathe easily without the need to tilt their heads while swimming.

Baleen Whale anatomy

Which whale live the longest?

Bowhead whales spend their whole lives in icy-cold, food-rich Arctic waters. They are slow moving and slow growing whales and don’t reach sexual maturity until they are 20 to 25 years old. Scientists now believe bowheads can live longer than humans and are among the longest-lived of all mammals. The maximum lifespan for bowheads is currently unknown, but multiple lines of evidence including stone harpoon tips found embedded in bowhead blubber and ageing analysis of their eye tissues, point to bowheads being able to live for at least up to 150 years and possibly over 200 years.

bowhead whale killed in 2007 by Eskimos was found to have carried a harpoon point in its neck for more than a hundred years. Experts dated the harpoon to a New England factory active around 1880.

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