Among the largest and oldest animals on Earth, whales belong to a group of marine mammals called cetaceans. Together with our partners, NOAA Fisheries works to ensure the conservation of whales which are all protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and protect and recover those that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Join us as we celebrate Whale Week, February 11 - 15, 2019, culminating with World Whale Day on February 16, 2019. Brush up on your whale knowledge with the facts below.
Tales of Whales: Whale Week Features
Video: Humpback Whale Disentanglements in Alaska
Watch efforts to disentangle two humpback whales in Alaska, and what to do if you see an entangled whale in Alaska.
Video: The Right Stuff: Regulations for Right Whales
North Atlantic Right whales are one of the world’s most endangered large whale species, with only about 450 animals remaining. NOAA has developed regulations for boaters and fishermen to help protect these whales from injury or death from vessel collisions and entanglement in fishing gear.
Q/A: Faces of Whale Conservation in the Pacific Islands
A frequent NOAA Fisheries collaborator, Robin Baird’s work has increased our understanding of Hawaiʻi’s whales and dolphins, especially false killer whales.
Video: Teaming Up for Entangled Whales
Whales can become entangled—in fishing gear, lines, or ropes—as they swim through the ocean. Entanglement can injure the whales and impair their ability to eat, swim, and reproduce. In our new video, Sarah Wilkin, the NOAA Fisheries National Marine Mammal Stranding and Emergency Response Coordinator, explains how we help to disentangle whales all around the country. For some endangered whales whose populations are very low, like right whales and blue whales, freeing even a small number of whales can help their populations recover.
Conserving Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises in an Ever-changing Ocean
Vital to the balance of marine ecosystems, whales serve as key indicators for ocean health. We have a responsibility to monitor and maintain their numbers in the wild. To do this we must address major threats to their survival by reducing entanglements, vessel strikes, ocean noise, pollution, and irresponsible marine wildlife viewing practices.
Whales: Did You Know
Sei whales dive differently than most whales. They do not arch their backs or show their flukes before diving; they simply sink below the surface. They often leave “fluke prints”—smooth circles on the surface created by the movement of the fluke underwater. An average sei whale eats about 2,000 pounds of food per day. They can dive 5 to 20 minutes to feed on plankton (including copepods and krill), small schooling fish, and cephalopods (including squid) by both gulping and skimming. They prefer to feed at dawn and may exhibit unpredictable behavior while foraging and feeding on prey.
Beluga whales are dark grey as calves. Their skin lightens as they age, becoming white as they reach sexual maturity. They lack a pronounced rostrum, or beak, and the top of their head is characterized by a round, flexible “melon” that focuses and modulates their vocalizations, including echolocation “clicks.” They are a toothed whale, possessing 36 to 40 teeth total in both the upper and lower jawbones.
Gray whales suck sediment and food from the sea floor by rolling on their sides and swimming slowly along, filtering their food through 130 to 180 coarse baleen plates on each side of their upper jaw. In doing so, they often leave long trails of mud behind them and "feeding pits" in the sea floor. Showing themselves to be a curious species, gray whales will inspect boats up close, making them a focus of West Coast whale watching tours.
Blue whales are among the loudest animals on the planet, emitting a series of pulses, groans, and moans, and it is thought that in good conditions, they can hear each other up to 1,000 miles away!
Killer whale diets differ based on the population. Southern Resident killer whales feed almost exclusively on salmon, especially Chinook salmon. But other killer whales will hunt gray whales, or sharks, and in more polar regions, seals become a main menu item. Some killer whales have even been observed preying on moose and deer that venture into deeper waters.
NOAA Fisheries researchers examining the diving behavior of endangered Southern Resident killer whales have found that male killer whales hunt more often than female whales do and that, despite their name, killer whales do not always catch their prey.
Well Over 100 Years
Historically, age determination in bowhead whales has been difficult, and life history parameters are better known in terms of body length than age. Based on the recovery of stone harpoon tips from harvested bowheads, it is evident that bowhead whales live well over 100 years. However, new techniques allow for more precise estimation of bowhead whale age, and studies suggest they may live to be over 200 years old. Genes that allow for repair of damaged DNA may be responsible for their longevity
Bowheads have extremely large heads and stocky bodies. The bow-shaped skull can be over 16.5 feet long—about a third of a bowhead’s body length. They also a 17 to 19-inch thick blubber layer—thicker than that of any other whale and they have the longest baleen plates of all whales.
Baleen whales are named for the long plates of baleen which hang in a row (like the teeth of a comb) from their upper jaws. Baleen plates are strong and flexible; they are made of a protein similar to human fingernails. These plates are broad at the base (gumline) and taper into a fringe which forms a curtain or mat inside the whale's mouth. Baleen whales strain huge volumes of ocean water through their baleen plates to capture food: tons of krill, other zooplankton, crustaceans, and small fish. Humpback whales have about 600 baleen plates in their upper jaw!
What You Can Do
Learn more about what you can do to help whales, such as:
- Know the law
- Report marine life in distress
- Report a violation
- Stay at least 100 yards away
- Support companies that commit to using best practices and protecting the oceans, such as whale watching companies that participate in Whale SENSE.
- Be a good neighbor. Recycle, reuse, dispose of garbage properly, and don't release balloons into the air. This will help prevent marine debris and keep the ocean clean and healthy.