The Lives of Whales
Whales long migrations, rich social lives, and stunning acrobatics have fascinated us for millennia. Yet, there is still much to do to protect these creatures of the sea and ensure their survival, which is critical to maintaining balance in the ocean.
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Image by personnel of NOAA Ship RAINIER
Majestic, peaceful, intelligent, and social, whales have long held a special place in our imagination. Whales and dolphins make appearances in creation myths and legends from around the world, in religious texts, and in modern literature and other media, such as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. As scientists learn more about the ways whales communicate and interact, we have become even more intrigued with their behaviors and apparent intelligence.
Part of our fascination with whales might be that they are mammals, like us. They are warm-blooded, breathe air, have hair, give live birth, and feed their young milk. Whales, dolphins, and porpoises are all cetaceans and can be divided into two groups: toothed and baleen whales.
Toothed whales include sperm whales, beaked whales, orcas, belugas, narwhals, dolphins, and porpoises. They have teeth and a single blowhole, and they use echolocation to find food and gather information about their surroundings. There are more than seventy species of toothed whales and about eleven species of baleen whales, including blue and gray whales.
Humpback whale blowhole, image by NOAA
Baleen whales use baleen, a fibrous plate made of keratin just like human fingernails, to filter their food from the water. Baleen whales have two blowholes, like our nostrils.
Whales have adapted to life in the ocean. They have a layer of blubber that keeps them warm, and some species use calls to communicate over long distances.
They have several adaptations that make it possible for them to make long, deep dives: Flexible ribs allow their lungs to collapse, their modified ear tissue can withstand the pressure of deep water, and they can slow their heart to reduce consumption of oxygen during a dive.
Whales Have Hair?
One of the characteristics that makes whales mammals is hair. Whales have fur as fetuses that is lost before or shortly after birth, and some whales have sparse whiskers as adults.
Sperm whale skeleton
Whales’ closest living relatives are hippopotamuses and other hoofed mammals like camels and pigs. They branched off from each other on the animal family tree about 50 million years ago. Whale flippers evolved from their four-legged ancestors’ front legs. They still have rear legs that over the course of millions of years shrunk and disappeared inside their bodies. You can still see these vestigial bones in their skeletons.
Role of Whales in the Ocean
Whales are carnivores, and they are typically at the top of the food web, meaning they have few or no predators. Whale calves are sometimes hunted by orcas and large sharks.
Through the food items they eat, whales help maintain balance in the ocean. They help control the populations of krill, fish, squid, and other animals they prey on. An overabundance of any of these species would lead to a depletion of the food they eat, putting the ocean ecosystem out of balance.
After feeding, the nutrients in whales’ waste feed new populations of phytoplankton, the tiny organisms at the bottom of the food web. Toothed whales like orcas weed out the slow or sick seals and sea lions to keep those populations healthy and in check.
Whales also have a role in ocean ecosystems after they die. After death, their bodies drift to the sea floor creating what is known as a whale fall, the island of life that survives for decades on the decaying carcass. Whale falls were only recently discovered by scientists in the 1970s, and new species were discovered living off the bone material of the whale’s skeleton.
Killer whales or orca courtesy of Dr. Brandon
Orca whales are able to travel at 35 miles per hour in short bursts, and the fin whale can cruise at 30 miles per hour.
Humpback whale courtesy of Dr. Brandon Southall
Some whales make an annual seasonal migration from colder waters where food is abundant in the summer months to warmer waters to mate and give birth in winter. Humpback whales have been known to make the longest migration of any mammal, traveling up to 11,000 miles round trip.
However, a tagged gray whale broke this record in 2012, migrating just under 14,000 miles round trip. Right whales and minke whales also make seasonal migrations within a smaller range.
Southern California is a good location for people to see whale migrations, particularly that of the gray whale. Our coastline’s deep canyons and underwater cliffs cause upwelling, which brings nutrient-rich cold water from the deep ocean to the surface, feeding plankton and attracting whales to feed off our coast year-round. This phenomenon makes Southern California a nice destination for blue whales traveling south in the summer.
Gray whale, image courtesy NOAA
Gray whales tend to pass through quickly during their southbound migration. They need to mate and give birth in the lagoons of Baja California before they reverse their path to move back north to their feeding grounds off the coast of Alaska for the summer. During this portion of their migration, gray whales tend to keep close to the coastline, as straying out too far could put their newborn calves at risk of predation.
Sperm whale credit NOAA's Ark - Animals Collection
Sperm whales have the largest brains of any organism on Earth, at 488 cubic inches. Human brains are about 80 cubic inches.
Social Behaviors and Intelligence
Scientists are learning more and more about the social behaviors and “culture” of whales, with research showing that cetaceans play, work collaboratively, teach each other new things, and even grieve.
While some whales and dolphins occasionally live alone or travel in pairs, toothed whales (primarily dolphins) are known for living in pods. Orcas, for example, have complex cultures that vary from pod to pod denoted by regional “dialects,” or differences in their vocalizations, as well as food preferences and behaviors. Groups of baleen whales are more often referred to as herds, as the familial bonds demonstrated in pods are not as strong as those demonstrated in pods.
Humpback whale bubble net feeding, image courtesy Christin Khan, NOAA
Cetaceans’ social behaviors can include collaborative hunting and feeding. Humpback whales use a method called bubble net feeding to trap their prey.
Working as a group, the whales dive to a certain depth below a school of fish. One humpback will blow a ring of bubbles to trap the fish in a tight ball as the rest of the group circles. Another team member emits a long feeding call, and all the humpbacks lunge at the surface to swallow the fish.
Cetaceans use a wide variety of sounds to communicate. Male humpback whales are known for their long, complex mating songs. These can last up to twenty minutes and be repeated for hours.
While there is still more to learn about whale society, the growing body of scientific knowledge shows that these animals have complex, vibrant lives.
There is much we still don’t know or understand about cetaceans, from their life expectancy, levels of intelligence, and hunting patterns, to pain perception and the reasons for and meaning behind their vocalizations and other behaviors.
Scientists are studying these and other questions, but conducting research is difficult because it is not easy to access cetaceans in the wild.
Researchers must have access to a boat and the time and patience to find whales in the open ocean.
NOAA marine ecologist Lisa Ballance at a site the southern Ross Sea, Antartica, where NOAA satellite-tagged local killer whales.
Then, during the small window when whales come to the surface, scientists need to make observations, obtain samples, attach GPS trackers, or whatever other activity their research requires before the whale dives again. Some cetacean species are so shy that any disturbance by a boat or other human activity would mean a lost opportunity to observe them.
NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service
Humans have hunted whales for thousands of years for their meat, blubber, and oil. Commercial whaling reached its peak by the early twenty-first century, and populations of large whale species were greatly depleted.
By the 1970s and 1980s cetaceans were pervasive in popular culture and well-loved, inspiring the Save the Whales campaign that gained the backing of several conservation organizations. The wide appeal of this campaign was a significant driver of what would become the modern environmentalist movement and helped bring about the end of commercial whaling.
A moratorium on commercial whaling established by the International Whaling Commission in 1986 helped whales to recover. One example is the eastern north Pacific population of gray whales, which was delisted from the Endangered Species Act in 1994 as they rebounded from near-extinction.
Despite the success of the Save the Whales campaign, whales still face several threats today. These include collisions with commercial or recreational vessels, known as ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear or other marine debris, and human encroachment in calving areas.
Their food sources are threatened by overfishing of krill and climate change. And studies show that noise pollution caused by human activities like ship traffic and sonar can damage whales’ hearing, interfere with their normal behavior, and potentially cause internal bleeding or even stranding and death. Blue, bowhead, fin, sei, and sperm whales are still endangered, as are distinct population segments of beluga, false killer, gray, killer, and right whales.
Paul Olsen for NOAA, CC BY 2.0
Humpback whales were recently delisted, but one population off the Cook Islands is still endangered. North Atlantic right whales and the vaquita porpoise native to the Gulf of California are at particular risk of extinction, with just 400 and 60 individuals left, respectively. More research can help us understand how we can best share the ocean with whales and protect them from harmful effects of human activity.
Right whale blow credit NOAA
A whale's spout or blow occurs when the whale comes to the surface to exhale after holding its breath underwater. A blue whale's spout can reach up to twenty feet high.
2016 Blue whale
Whale Programs at the Aquarium
The Aquarium is fortunate in its location because the Catalina Channel between Santa Catalina Island and the Southern California coast hosts a wide variety of cetaceans. Each year blue and gray whales and a variety of dolphins appear in the waters off Long Beach. Fin, minke, and humpback whales are also commonly sighted, and some lucky whale watchers have seen orcas, and other more rare sightings.
Whale watches are offered daily at the Aquarium. Gray whale season generally falls between October and April, and blue whale season takes place in the summer, between June and September. An Aquarium educator and interns are on board each cruise to narrate, answer questions, and provide information about whales and other marine life spotted along on the cruise. The interns take photos of whales to contribute to a database to help identify individuals.
You can follow along with recent sightings on the Aquarium’s whale watch blog (aquariumofpacific.org/blogs/category/whale_watching) and Twitter feed (@OceanWatchLB).
Aquarium visitors can also stop at the Whales: Voices in the Sea exhibit kiosk on the second floor across from the entrance to the Northern Pacific Gallery to learn more about whale species, see video interviews with whale researchers, and listen to recordings of whale sounds.
What You Can Do
In addition to the general precautions you can take to keep the ocean a healthy place for marine life, like keeping trash and pollutants from entering water ways, participating in a beach clean-up, avoiding the purchase of single-use plastics, and other conservation activities, people can also help whales and other marine mammals by reporting an entanglement or stranding.
Whales can become entangled in fishing gear and other marine debris, which can slow their swimming pace, prevent them from feeding, and lead to injury or even death. If you spot an entangled whale, do not approach the animal, and call the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries entanglement reporting hotline at 1-877-SOS-WHALE (1-877-767-9425).
While scientists can only pinpoint the cause of about half of all strandings (when dolphins or whales beach themselves), they theorize that underwater noise caused by human activity including military use of sonar, in addition to illness, injuries, and even red tides are thought to play a role . Any time a whale or dolphin is found on the beach, it should be reported to the NOAA Fisheries Stranding Network by calling 1-866-767-6114.
More research is needed to understand whale behavior, including breaching. This whale was spotted near the San Juan Islands.
This article was written with assistance from James Stewart, education and boat program coordinator at the Aquarium.