Fun Facts about Wonderful Whales
Explore the wonderful world of whales and learn some fascinating facts about them.
Which whale would I most likely see on a whale watch cruise?
The humpback whale is often seen by whale-watching boats. The humpback reaches a maximum length of about 60 feet and a maximum weight of about 40 tons, with females larger than males.
In the southern hemisphere its primary food is krill. In the northern hemisphere it eats schooling fish such as anchovies, cod, sand lance, and capelin.
The humpback is one of the most popular whales for whale watching on both the east and west coasts. It is the whale most often photographed leaping out of the water (called breaching) and surfacing quickly to trap food, which is known as lunging.
The humpback is also called the "singing whale." A male's song may be as long as half an hour and changes from year to year. According to the most recent stock assessment reports the North Pacific humpback population estimate is 22,000. The North Atlantic population is 12,000; the southern hemisphere population is about 50,000.
How big is a blue whale?
The blue whale may be the largest animal ever to inhabit the earth. Blue whales can grow up to 31 meters (100 feet)—roughly the length of a basketball court. Blue whales have weighed up to 160 tons. They feed on small shrimp-like crustaceans. The whales consume up to eight tons of these animals a day during their feeding period. The loudest sound ever recorded from an animal was produced by a blue whale. Some scientists have speculated that they may be able to remain in touch with each other over hundreds of miles. The number of blue whales was severely depleted by whaling. Due to commercial whaling the size of the population is less than ten percent of what it was originally.
What is the second largest whale?
The fin whale is the second largest whale. It can grow up to 88 feet long and weigh up to 76 tons. Depending on where they live, fin whales eat both fish and small crustaceans. In the Antarctic, their prey is almost exclusively krill. In northern areas they often eat small schooling fish such as herring or anchovies. Like the other great whale species, the population of fin whales was severely depleted by whaling.
What do whales eat?
Whales eat a variety of species from the entire food chain from tiny zooplankton to other large mammals. Some species feed on swarms of zooplankton (copepods and euphausiids, or "krill"). Others feed on schooling fish. The sperm whale feeds on squid. The type of prey may determine how a specific species feeds. Some whales feed by lunging; they take huge gulps of water containing their prey. Others are skimmers; they swim along with their mouths open before straining out their prey. One of the more interesting feeding methods has been observed in humpback whales. They sometimes construct bubble nets around a school of fish and then lunge up through the bubble net to get their food.
What makes a right whale "right"?
The right whale got its name because it was the "right" whale to hunt—it was slow moving and floated after being killed. It is the most endangered species of whale off of the U.S. coasts. It was the first whale hunted by American whalers, and it was so depleted that it has not recovered despite being protected for more than 50 years. They grow up to 60 feet long, and can weigh up to 100 tons. They feed on large schools of crustaceans, specifically copepods and krill, and may feed on small fish near the ocean floor. The main causes of death in right whales are entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strike. Check out our interactive Google map to see where right whales have been sighted recently.
What does a bowhead whale eat?
The diet of bowhead whales consists of small crustaceans termed copepods and euphausiids (krill). As with other species, the bowhead whale was severely depleted by commercial whaling. It may be as long as 60-65 feet and weigh as much as 120 tons. Alaskan Inuits still harvest about 50 bowheads each year for subsistence use.
Do any large whales have teeth?
Unlike the other great whales on the endangered species list, the sperm whale is a toothed whale. It is the largest of the toothed whales, reaching a length of 60 feet in males and 40 feet in females. Sperm whales are noted for their dives, which can last up to an hour and a half and go as deep as 2 miles under the surface. An endangered species, its estimated global population is 100,000. Sperm whales feed mainly on squid, including the giant squid.
How often do large whales calve?
Most of the larger whales have a very low reproductive rate; females only have a single calf every 2-4 years. This low rate of reproduction means that it may take decades for some species to recover to their former population levels. Even under the best conditions, it will take more than a century for right whales to recover.
For most large whales, the calves are born during the part of the annual cycle when the animals are in warmer waters, and the adults are not feeding. The calf typically remains with it's mother for a year before becoming independent. During that time, a calf gains weight very rapidly. Whale milk is very rich, and a blue whale calf may gain almost 200 pounds per day.
What are the main threats to whales these days?
Fisheries may affect whales in two ways. First, whales may become entangled in fishing gear. Each year, several humpback whales are entangled in fishing gear along the east coast of the United States and Canada. Second, fisheries may compete with whales for food, such as herring.
Increased noise or boat traffic may cause whales to alter their behavior. There is evidence that humpback whales in Hawaii may have changed their use of near-shore waters where calves are raised by their mothers because of increasing human activity. Migrating bowhead whales may move further offshore to avoid human-caused noise.
Although we do not have a full understanding of the possible impacts, pollution could also affect whales. Many contaminants are stored in a whale's blubber for long periods of time. Pollutant loads are usually lower in baleen whales than in dolphins and porpoises. Pollution also reduces the number of fish and crustaceans, so there could be less food available to the whales.
Which whale species are protected under the Endangered Species Act?
There are seven species of large whales in U.S. waters that are protected under the Endangered Species Act:
- Blue whale.
- Bowhead whale.
- Fin whale.
- Humpback whale.
- North Atlantic and North Pacific right whale.
- Sei whale.
- Sperm whale.
Thanks to Christin Khan and Allison Henry of the Northeast Protected Species Branch for their input on this page.