Coming face-to-face with a whale rates highly on most divers’ bucket lists. Our fascination is nothing new, however, for mankind has been under the spell of these ocean leviathans for thousands of years. Once upon a time, whales were perceived as monsters from the deep, as evidenced by their portrayal in literature from the Biblical story of Jonah to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. As we learned more about these magnificent creatures, however, our understanding of them began to change, and we now know that they’re supremely intelligent (and largely peaceful) beings that require protection rather than persecution. There’s still much to discover about the lives of all whale species, but here we’ll take a brief look at ten fascinating facts about whales that science has uncovered so far.
Although the humpback whales found off the coast of Australia and the ones found off the coast of North America may look identical, they are, in fact, from two entirely separate populations whose migration patterns ensure that they will never meet or breed with one another. This is true for all migrating baleen whales with northern and southern hemisphere populations, whose asynchronous breeding seasons keep them separate from one another at all times.
For years, scientists have been analyzing the earwax of dead whales to determine their age, counting the layers in the wax in much the same way that one would count the rings in a tree trunk. In 2013, a team of researchers at Baylor University discovered that fluctuations in hormones and chemical exposures can also be read in a whale’s earwax, enabling them to determine exactly when a whale hit puberty, when it gave birth, and what pollutants it was exposed to at different points in its life.
In 2007, a harpoon blade dating back to 1879 was found embedded in the flesh of a dead bowhead whale, suggesting that the whale had been alive for more than a century. It’s estimated that these enormous Arctic whales could live even longer, with tests on the aspartic acid in one bowhead’s eyeball giving it an approximate age of 211. Scientists believe that the key to this species’ longevity may be their slow metabolism, a response to the frigid climate in which they live.
Largest animal, ever
The blue whale is the largest animal ever to have lived, outstripping all known dinosaurs in terms of length or weight. To date, the largest blue whale accurately weighed by the National Marine Mammal Laboratory tipped the scales at just over 198 tons. Blue whales can reach lengths of over 100 feet (30 m), and their hearts can be as large as a small car. Despite this, the throat of this plankton-feeding species is tiny in proportion to the rest of its body, and is no bigger than a salad plate.
Beluga whales are known for the particularly strong bond that develops between a mother whale and her calf. Tragically, if a beluga mother loses her newborn, she will adopt an arbitrary inanimate object in its place, carrying it around and caring for it as if it were her baby. Wild belugas have been seen carrying planks of wood, buoys and even a caribou skeleton during calving season.
The closest living relative to whales and dolphins is the hippopotamus. However, whales evolved over 50 million years ago, approximately 35 million years before the earliest known hippos. It is thought that the first whales were land animals known as Pakicetus, which had long skulls and large, carnivorous teeth. Scientists believe that several stages of evolution separate modern whales from Pakicetus, which likely evolved in order to hunt in the ocean rather than on land.
The record for the longest migration undertaken by a marine mammal is thought to belong to the gray whale, a species that travels from its Arctic feeding grounds to calving lagoons in Mexico and back every year, a round trip of between 10,000 and 12,000 miles. Even more incredibly, the return journey must be completed not only by the mother whale, but also by her newborn calf.
In addition to the haunting song for which the humpback whale is so famous, some baleen whales are capable of emitting low-frequency noises that can travel for thousands of miles. Dr. Christopher Clark from the University of Cornell recorded and analyzed the songs of thousands of different baleen whale species using naval hydrophones, and concluded that a whale off the coast of Puerto Rico could easily communicate with one 1,600 miles away in Newfoundland.
Whales play a role in the mythology of many different cultures, particularly those that traditionally depended upon whale meat and other products for survival. In some Vietnamese coastal communities, whales are considered sacred, and funerals are often held for those whales that beach themselves upon the shore. Whales also play a role in Inuit creation myths, and appear in the mythology of other nations including Iceland, Ghana, Canada and the Cook Islands.
Still at risk
In 1986, the International Whaling Commission placed a moratorium on whaling, and yet, loopholes in the law have allowed Japan to continue hunting for “research purposes,” while Norway still whales under an objection to the ban. Iceland also kills a certain quota of whales each year, while some countries allow Aboriginal subsistence whaling. In the years since the ban came into effect, more than 30,000 whales have been killed as a result of these loopholes.