Whales are found throughout the world, in all oceans, from the Arctic to the Antarctic and everywhere in between. Some Whales have very specific regions, such as the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale, while others can be found worldwide, like the Humpback. These amazing creatures live in the open oceans where they spend their whole lives. Because they are mammals, which means they have air-breathing lungs, they need to stay close to the surface in the sunlight zone, but many whales are still able to dive to great depths, such as the Sperm Whales. Whales have the longest migration routes in the whole world. Some species will travel over 5000 miles from their breeding grounds to the warmer tropical climates to give birth to their young.
What are Whales?
Whales are aquatic mammals who evolved from an ancient, dog-sized, land-dwelling creature called a Pakicetus, who lived around 49 million years ago. Because of their land-dwelling history, the Whale’s closet relative is actually the Hippopotamus! Just like Dolphins, all Whales have a blowhole on the tops of their heads, to allow for easy beathing when they surface. However, baleen Whales, the larger of the two kinds, have two blowholes! Whales have long, streamlined bodies for swift swimming, with thick blubber to help them stay warm. Whales also have incredible adaptations to help them stay underwater longer, including slowing their heart rates when they dive, and their blood absorbing more oxygen. Whales also have large and specially adapted eyes to help them see underwater and communicate using unique vocalizations under the water.
Depending on the species, Whales can either be very social or very solitary. Toothed Whales tend to be very social and live in groups called pods. Species like the Sperm Whales can even have as many as 50 pod members. Baleen Whales tend to be more solitary, and although they can travel in groups, they tend to be seen alone more often. Baleen Whales normally only gather when they go to their breeding grounds to mate. Whales communicate with each other through amazing and loud vocalizations which can be heard from miles away! When they gather, each Whale has their own distinct sounding calls. Whales also communicate with each other using their bodies and will often breach, or jump, out of the water slamming their bodies into the surface. Whales will also slam their tails and even their fins into the surface to make loud slaps.
Whales are all carnivores, although baleen Whales and toothed Whales have very different diets. The main differences between baleen Whales and toothed Whales can be found in the way they feed. Baleen Whales filter feed through large curtains in their mouths of a material called baleen, which is made of a strong, but flexible, material called keratin. They feed on zooplankton, krill, and small fish. Toothed Whales, however, have a full set of teeth and a more diverse diet including squid, large fish, octopus, crustaceans, and even smaller mammals. Toothed Whales also hunt using a special tool that baleen Whales do not have called echolocation. Using echolocation, toothed Whales can send out high pitched clicks, which reflect off objects and back to the toothed Whales, allowing them to “see” their prey.
Whales will travel long distances to breeding grounds, where females and males will mate when they reach 5 – 10 years old. Once they mate, female and male Whales do not stay together. The gestation period, depending on the kind of Whale, is anywhere from 11 – 18 months, that’s over a year! Because it takes so long for Whales to develop, female Whales typically only giver birth every 2 – 3 years. The gestation period of a Whale is so long because when Whales are born, they must be fully prepared to swim and learn, meaning their giant brains must be fully developed. When the Whale calf is born, they will stay with their mothers for up to a year, until they learn all the essential skills they need to survive. Baleen Whale calves will normally leave on their own once a year has passed, while toothed Whale calves may permanently stay with their mother’s pod.
Although Whales live in the open ocean, they are still threatened by rapidly changing ocean temperatures, over-hunting, fishing net entanglement, and large ships. Whales are very dependent on the temperature of the oceans around them, as well are their prey. Creatures such as zooplankton and krill grow better at cooler temperatures, with warming ocean temps, their numbers are staring to shrink. Some Whale species, such as the Grey Whale and Blue Whale, were historically hunted for generations until they almost went extinct in the late 1800s for their blubber. Since then, commercial whaling has been banned in most of the world. Whales are also very sensitive to noise pollution from large cargo ships which can disrupt Whale migration patterns and communication. These ships can also strike Whales, and ships are now required to stay a certain distance from Whales spotted around them.
Whale populations face a lot of threats, but some species are making a slow recovery, while others still face possible extinction. Species, like the endangered Blue Whale, are suspected to have slowly rising numbers since their population was depleted from whaling. However, some species, like the North Atlantic Right Whale, are critically endangered with less than 350 left in the wild. Other species, like the Humpback, who are listed as least concern, have had their numbers rise significantly from 10,000 to now over 80,000 over the past century. Regardless of the status of each Whale species, they are all still threatened by fishing net entanglement, noise pollution, and boat strikes, and they need our help to keep their home safe.
How to Help
Whales need our help! Whales may live in the deep ocean, but there are still many ways you can help save the Whales. Leave the beach cleaner than you found it. Help pick up any trash you find lying around and throw it away! All trash is harmful to marine life and can be eaten by Whales. Reduce your CO2 emission to help with changing temperatures! If you can, by walking, biking, or taking public transport instead of your car you can help reduce the amount of greenhouse gases going into the environment and changing ocean habitat. Buy local! The less products we ship from other countries, the less noise pollution and boat strikes will occur. Learn about Whales! The more you learn, the more you can share with others! When you help educate others, you can help create a community of people who all want to help these magnificent animals.