Facts About Whales
- Whales are mammals, meaning that they share with us several traits; they’re warm-blooded, give birth to live young and raise them, have some type of hair or fur, and breathe through their lungs on the surface of the ocean. Their ancestors lived on land, evolving and adapting to life in the ocean through the formation of flippers, blubber (layers of fat) to stay warm, and larger tails.
- There are 48 known species of whales. There are two types of whales: toothed whales and baleen whales, the latter of which strain small fish and plankton from the water for food.
- The blue whale is the largest animal ever to have existed on Earth. The longest confirmed specimen was 30.5 meters in length, and the smallest species – the dwarf sperm whale – measures only around 9 feet long when fully grown.
- Whale populations are in steep decline worldwide. Over the last century, the Fin whale population has dropped from 720,000 to around 20,000. Other species, such as Sei whales, number only in the hundreds today.
- Whales rely on sound for hunting, navigating and communicating. Toothed whales use a fascinating system of echolocation for hunting for food and navigating while baleen whales use a pattern of sounds known as “songs” for communication.
- Whales are migratory animals and often travel thousands of miles to breed in ideal water conditions. This tracker allows you to explore the movements of whales that travel to the Hawaiian Islands for their annual breeding.
Why We Need to Protect Whales
- Role in the Ecosystem: Whales possess an important role in the marine ecosystem. They recycle important nutrients, such as iron, by feeding at lower depths and re-releasing these nutrients closer to the surface of the water. Additionally, when whale carcasses drop to the seafloor, it provides a food habitat for many species that only exist on these “whale falls.”
- Ecosystem Services: Whales substantially contribute to combating climate change. Whales are excellent carbon sequesters. When they die and sink to the bottom of the ocean, the carbon that they have accumulated over their lifetime is trapped inside their bodies. Additionally, the dung of whales provides phytoplankton with nutrients for photosynthesis. Plankton photosynthesis absorbs carbon from the atmosphere, helping to address climate change. It also creates oxygen. By some estimates, nearly 50% of all the oxygen we breathe stems from the role of whales feeding phytoplankton in the ocean.
- Economic Contributions: Whale watching generates around 4 billion dollars and helps support 13,000 coastal jobs worldwide.
- Uniqueness: After discovering brain cells previously found only in humans, researchers now believe whales possess comparable levels of intelligence, including the abilities for social organization, empathy, speech, and, remarkably, the ability to pass their new knowledge to others.
Threats to Whales
- Water and Noise Pollution: Waste and debris from oil and chemical spills can have disastrous effects on the health of whales by seeping into their blubber and even the milk of female whales. Noise pollution – large, booming sounds – from boats and sonar devices can drive whales away from their natural habitat and even kill them directly.
- Dam Construction: For species of whales that depend on a food supply from freshwater rivers, dams can severely restrict the available supply and lead to food shortages.
- Bycatch: Bycatch threatens whales when they become entangled in the gear and nets of commercial fishing, leading to suffocation or prolonged injuries.
- Collisions: Collisions between whales and boats, both large and small, can directly injure or even kill the animal. Collisions can occur when boats travel at excess speeds or when their routes encroach on a whale’s breeding ground.
- Hunting: Commercial hunting, knowns as whaling, during the twentieth century is estimated by experts to have wiped out almost three million whales – in terms of animal biomass, perhaps the largest wipeout of any species in the Anthropocene period. While some species of whale are recovering, others remain threatened and even at the brink of extinction. The Sei, Minke, and Fin whales continue to be hunted at dangerous levels, even under the pretense of scientific research. The time has come to end commercial whaling.
- Climate Change: Rising sea temperatures disrupt a whale’s natural migration and can affect its reproduction capabilities. Moreover, rising ocean temperatures can deplete the phytoplankton population, causing more carbon dioxide to remain in the atmosphere.
How to Help Whales
- Refuse to Eat Whale Meat or Buy Whale Byproducts: By refusing to consume or purchase anything that comes from a whale, you can discourage legal and illegal hunting by lowering product demand. Avoiding whale meat is also a healthy choice because the whale meat currently on the market contains dangerous levels of pesticides.
- Prevent Ocean Pollution: Whether you are by the ocean or farther inland, dangerous chemicals and pollutants make their way to the ocean. Helpful actions include: Supporting water pollution prevention efforts, properly disposing of waste, and reducing or eliminating lawn and garden fertilization. Ocean plastic is also a big problem for whales—ingestion and entanglement are among the problems. Actions such as beach and river cleanups, switching to reusable bags, and reducing plastic consumption overall can help prevent and reduce the risk to whales.
- Support Sustainable Fishing: Large-scale commercial fishing can harm whales through bycatch and through depletion of fish in its ecosystem. By purchasing sustainable seafood, you can help prevent further harm to whales.
- Learn how to go green, protect the environment and fight global warming with 46 easy to follow tips.
- Help End Plastic Pollution.
- Test your knowledge about threats to ocean ecosystems with our Oceans Plastic Pollution Quiz.