Together these three distinct animal groups make up what is known as the cetacean species.
While the name whale can sometimes refer to all cetaceans (whales, dolphins & porpoises) it usually excludes dolphins and porpoises in order to ensure that the three animal groups are easily identifiable.
Based on their physical characteristics these three groups are further separated into two suborders.
The two primary suborders include the Odontoceti suborder (toothed whales) which includes all species of dolphin and porpoise along with whales such as the sperm whale, killer whale (Delphinidae), beluga whale and narwhal whale, and the Mysticeti suborder (baleen whales) which includes the humpback whale, bowhead whale, blue whale and minke whale among other large (toothless) whales.
All species regardless of their suborder share several physical characteristics with those who belong to the cetacean family.
They all have flippers designed for swimming, a tail with flukes used for navigating the water and nasal openings (blowholes) for breathing.
Appearance and Features
Depending on the whales species their physical appearance and features can change dramatically.
As stated previously there are two suborders known as the toothed whale and baleen whale suborders.
Those that belong to the toothed whale suborder are born with teeth (or tusks) that can be used for consuming prey, showing aggression or self defense.
Cetaceans that belong to the baleen whale suborder possess baleen plates with bristles rather than teeth or tusks and use their bristles to filter their prey from the water.
Cetaceans that fall into the toothed whale suborder tend to be smaller and lighter than their baleen whale relatives, and while not always the case toothed whales also tend to be more social than baleen whales as they generally travel in larger pods together.
As a comparison in regards to size between the two suborders the largest species of toothed whale is the sperm whale which can grow to lengths of up to 67 ft. long and weigh more than 50 tons, while the largest baleen whale is the blue whale which can exceed 90 ft. long and weigh over 150 tons.
On the other end of the spectrum the smallest toothed whale is the dwarf sperm whale which measures in at around 9 ft. long and weighs an average of 400 lbs. to 600 lbs., while the minke whale holds the title for the smallest baleen whale with an average length of 22 – 25 ft. long and a weight of up to 10 tons.
In order to better understand the differences between the toothed whale and baleen whale suborder let’s take a look at the primary characteristics that separate these two amazing suborders.
In addition to possessing teeth toothed whales are also capable of using echolocation to search for prey and navigate in areas where visibility is low.
Oddly toothed whales are only born with one blowhole as apposed to the two blowholes that baleen whales possess.
One of the most common assumptions for this type of adaptation is that toothed whales developed one of their blowholes into an echolocation system to help them survive in the ocean.
When it comes to appearance toothed whales typically have streamlined bodies designed for fast swimming, however some species do have stockier bodies than others.
The shape and size of the head can change from one animal to the next.
Dolphins tend to have longer beaks than porpoises and whales and are also slimmer than many of the other cetaceans.
Their light, thin bodies allow them to quickly accelerate and leap out of the water further than other marine mammals.
Porpoises tend to be stockier than the dolphin species in terms of body shape while whales can vary greatly in terms of how bulky or streamlined their body is from one species to the next.
When it comes to their teeth the number of teeth that a toothed whale possesses can vary significantly from with species such as the narwhal only possessing one to two teeth (or rather tusks) while several of the dolphin species are known to possess over 200 teeth.
Some toothed whales may also have teeth that are present only in their lower jaw such as the sperm whale.
Although all toothed whales possess teeth not all of them use their teeth to hunt for food.
Some toothed whales may only use their teeth to show aggression towards other whales or for self defense and will consume their prey whole.
In fact species such as the sperm whale have been known to successfully capture their prey on a regular basis even when they have a deformed jaw or have lost most/all of their teeth.
A few species such as the killer whale and false killer whale may have a more diverse diet that consists of consuming other marine mammals and sharks in addition to the regular prey that is common among toothed whales.
The types of foods a toothed whale consumes can be very dependent upon their location.
For example depending on the killer whales location and pod their diet can either be primarily marine mammal focused or fish and squid based.
Species such as the Amazon river dolphin may consume piranha and other local fish that are an uncommon/non existent food source in other parts of the world.
As mentioned before baleen whales are typically larger than toothed whales both in terms of size and overall weight, however they completely lack teeth.
Instead of teeth the baleen whale suborder is comprised solely of whales that possess baleen plates with bristles.
Due to the fact that these marine mammals lack teeth they hunt for their food by sifting their prey out of the water with their baleen bristles.
This is done by swimming towards their prey with their mouth open and catching their prey in the bristles which act like a filter by allowing water to escape while preventing their prey from being able to get out of the tightly packed bristles.
Depending on the whales species a baleen whale may either continuously skim the water with its mouth open or lunge towards a large swarm of prey and attempt to capture as many fish or krill as they possibly can in a single gulp.
Once the whale has captured enough prey it will push the water out with its tongue and swallow the remaining food.
Interestingly these marine mammals have a relatively small throat when compared to the size of its stomach and body.
Because of this baleen whales tend to stick to a diet that consists of small easily consumable prey.
Baleen whales are known to consume a variety of small fish, krill, squid and crustaceans and will avoid prey that is too large to easily swallow.
Given their large size these marine mammals eat very large quantities of food therefore baleen whales are often found in areas where high quantities of krill and other small digestible ocean animals can be found as they require a constant supply of prey to stay healthy and thrive in the ocean.
The blue whale for example can consume up to 8,000 lbs. of krill per day.
On the other hand some species of baleen whale have been known to fast for several months while migrating as they live primarily off of their blubber supply until they reach their target destination.
As mentioned earlier cetaceans can vary greatly in size from Maui’s dolphin which can measure in at as little as 4 ft. long to the blue whale which can exceed 90 ft.
In order to swim these marine mammals have a tails with flukes that allow them to propel themselves through the water by moving their flukes up and down.
They also possess a pair of flippers that help them navigate and turn, role, rise and dive in the water.
The size and shape of the flippers are different for various cetaceans.
The humpback whale for instance has extremely large, long flippers than can measure 1/3 of its entire body while the bowhead whale has relatively short paddle shaped flippers when compared to the rest of its body.
Some cetaceans (not all) possess a dorsal fin which is located on the mid to lower back which can assist with stabilization when swimming.
The killer whale for example has a large dorsal fin that is either pointed or curved depending on the pod it belongs to.
The beluga whale on the other hand completely lacks the presence of a dorsal fin and the humpback whale has a large hump on its back rather than a dorsal fin.
Although these marine mammals can vary in shape they are typically thickest in the belly region and taper down towards the head and flukes, but species such as the sperm whale are known for their large block shaped head which can make up a large portion of its overall size.
In terms of color most whales appear to be black, brown, bluish, dark gray, gray, light grey and/or white in color with rare cetaceans such as the amazon river dolphin having a pinkish skin tone.
Some species may also appear a certain color when swimming underwater and appear a variation of that color when at the surface.
The blue whale for example appears to be closer to a grayish blue rather than a deep blue color when at the surface of the water, however when it dives the light distortion of the water gives this whale its deep blue appearance.
Echolocation and Navigation
When it comes to navigating the ocean whether to search for food or avoid collision with nearby objects in dark areas the toothed whale suborder is capable of navigating the ocean and hunting for food using echolocation.
Echolocation allows these whales to create sounds and determine the distance, size, density and speed of objects in the areas by interpreting the echo’s frequency and measuring the time it takes for the emitted sounds to come back to them.
Aside from being used as a way to locate prey and avoid collision with nearby obstacles echolocation also allows cetaceans to coordinate attacks with one another when searching for prey as it allows them to identify where their team is and what they are doing.
It also toothed whales keep track of the location of specific pod members as they swim below the oceans surface or travel in groups, which can be especially important when a mother for example wants to keep track of her child.
While previously though to be exclusive among the toothed whale species recent research suggests that echolocation may also be present in some baleen whale species, however the extent and capabilities of echolocation among baleen whales remains unknown.
Whales are considered one of the most intelligent animals on earth.
Although it is difficult to calculate and determine what exactly is intelligence when it comes to other animals marine biologists and scientists have studied whale intelligence for decades and have learned a lot about their hunting methods, social structure, breeding habits and various other indicators related to what most people would consider social, survival and individual intelligence.
For example studies of certain whale pods have shown that whales have the ability to develop a social hierarchy, play games together, teach each other survival strategies and hunt in cohesive well-organized groups.
From a social perspective whales have a very developed and structured language which they use to communicate various wants and/or needs to other whales.
Whales can communicate their desires such as wanting to play or an interest in mating, hunting strategies and the location of potential prey and warn other pod members of nearby threats such as sharks or killer whales as well as communicate other important aspects of their lives.
In fact certain groups of cetaceans have even been compared to that of a human culture in the fact that whales are able to show signs of self recognition and leadership as well as develop a culture like society among their pods.
Some whale species have been known to show an interest and desire to meet people and will approach their boats in an attempt to understand what’s going on.
Smaller species such as the beluga whale, bottlenose dolphin and killer whale can be found at aquariums performing tricks and playing with their trainers.
When it comes to cetaceans that have developed close relationships with family and friends these these marine mammals can be seen protecting one another from predators and other potential threats.
Not only do they show intellectual abilities, they also show deep emotions in their ability to connect with others, morn death and celebrate vitality.
While much can be learned about the whale species simply by following them and observing their day-to-day life some of our understanding about their intellectual capacity remains difficult to research and study due to the large size of many whale species.
Because of the massive size of numerous whale species much of our understanding of whale intelligence comes from dolphins and porpoises as well as more commonly known whale species that can be observed and researched from a distance.
Marine biologists and scientists have been working with dolphins and porpoises for many years and have learned a lot from these amazing animals.
Through decades of spending time with dolphins and porpoises we have learned that dolphins are capable of self recognition, are able to learn, memorize and perform complex tasks and are able to understand complex commands given to them by their trainers.
Dolphins have also been trained by the military to locate bombs and find missing people lost at sea.
Even in their natural habitat dolphins show amazing cognitive abilities and have been observed protecting people who were being attacked by sharks and helping people find their way back to land without being trained to do so.
Numerous reports by diving researchers have been made stating that some whales swam very gently when near the diver in order to not harm them and the divers reported this being a conscious effort on the whales part as they believe the whales were being very caring and deliberate in their behavior.
Whales as a whole inhibit the entire worlds oceans and have an estimated annual growth rate of 5 – 15 percent.
It is currently estimated that there are over 80 different cetacean species in existence today.
While there are currently well over a million whales living throughout the worlds oceans it is difficult to accurately estimate their total population.
Depending on their location and the time of the year these marine mammals will migrate between the cold and warm climates during these two seasons.
During feeding months (the colder months of the year) whales will travel to their local feeding grounds and spend their time consuming as much prey as possible.
The types of food a cetacean eats isn’t necessarily determined by its size either.
For example the gray whale often eats small crustaceans and sea sediment, while the killer whale will attack and eat larger prey such as seals and other marine mammals.
During mating months (the warmer months of the year) these marine mammals will travel to their mating grounds and some whale species will forgo eating altogether, fasting and living strictly off of body fat from the calories they consumed during feeding season.
Some whales can be very competitive during this time of the year and may even charge other male whales or horde female whales away in an attempt to mate and bear offspring with the female.
Males whales such as the humpback will also communicate by creating loud low-pitched melodic tones (known as whale songs) and display their fitness and health by doing acrobatic stunts such as breaching the water and tail slapping which also helps show off their dominance and attract a female.
For whales the average gestation period can vary greatly ranging between 10 and 17 months depending on the species.
In many cases whales don’t maintain fixed partners and can mate with several other whales over their lifetime (or even during a single mating season) in order to maximize their chances of reproducing offspring.
On average a female whale will bear a single offspring once every 2 – 6 years while it is fertile.
In order to feed the newborn whale the female will feed her young by producing a thick milk (about 35-50% fat) from her mammary glands and shoot it through the water and into her baby’s mouth.
The thickness of the milk allows it to travel through the water without breaking up and contains vital nutrients for the baby whale.
Some baby whales may also use their mouth/tongue as a seal to help prevent the milk from traveling through the water in order to ensure that they are receiving important food and nutrients.
The nursing/milking period for baby whales can be maintained for over a year if necessary although the range can vary greatly from 6 months all the way up to two years depending on the species and the child’s physical/psychological dependency on its mothers milk and nurturing personality.
In the context of a group or family male whales are often referred to as bulls, females are called cows and babies are commonly known as calves.
When it comes to lifespan the average lifespan of a whale can range from 20 – 200 years depending on the whales species, overall health, social life and environment.
Every year as many as 2000 whales end up beaching themselves and dying.
While many beached whales end up stranded on a beach or sandy environment a whale can end up beaching itself anyplace where the ocean meets land.
Most beachings are generally caused by sickness, a loss of direction, an injury or a deceased whale brought in by the tide.
As a whale ends up stranding itself on land it eventually dies due to dehydration, difficulty breathing (whales are extremely heavy and may be crushed by their own weight) or drowning caused by the high tides when water rises above the whale’s head preventing it from breathing through its blowhole.
As stated earlier though not all stranded whales are alive when they end up beached.
Some whales may have already died before being brought to land and were carried in by the wind and tide.
Since thousands of whales die on an annual basis a certain percentage of dead whales are likely to end up pulled ashore by the current and end up beached.
In most cases these deceased whales end up decomposing to the point that their body eventually sinks to the bottom of the ocean where other aquatic species can feed on it and thrive.
In shallow waters deceased whales are generally eaten over a relatively short period of time (over the course of a few months) by other species and scavengers.
In deep waters however a deceased whales corps may end up providing various aquatic species with their own ecosystem which can last for several decades.
Today as technology advances and humans take to the ocean with more sophisticated technology marine biologists are showing growing concerns about the possible causes of recent whale beachings.
Some of these causes are considered natural and/or normal while other “possible” causes are contributed to the creation of man-made ambient sounds and technology such as large boats and ships.
While it remains too soon to tell if man-made technology is at fault for any of the beachings it has raised some important questions, which if found true will help improve the understanding and use of technology so as to prevent further incidents involving technology that can cause whale beachings.
Possible causes of whale beaching’s
- Collisions with man-made technology (boats, ships, submarines and other man-made aquatic machinery)
- Water pollution (gas, oil, waste and poisonous chemicals)
- Noise pollution (Sonar, boat engines, explosives and loud aircraft)
- Natural causes (collisions with large rocks, sickness, pneumonia and natural diseases)
- Predator attacks (attacks from sharks and/or killer whales)
- Attacks from or consuming poisonous species (although this may occur it is less likely than several of the other causes)
- Changes in the earths magnetic field (may affect echolocation)
- Global warming (melting icebergs and dying food supplies)
- Misguided by a leader whale that ended up beaching itself (following an injured or sick whale towards land)
- Quick changes in sea depth where the water suddenly becomes shallow causing the whale to get stuck on land (certain areas may be shallow and then quickly fall of into deep waters)
As a species whales have evolved over the course of millions of years from land dwelling animals to inhabitants of the sea.
Before whales lived in the ocean they (actually their ancestors) walked and hunted on land.
Several characteristics point to the ancestral origin of whales including the need to breathe air (unlike fish that have gills) despite living exclusively in the ocean, bones in their flippers which resemble limbs that were once used for walking and hunting on land, and the vertical shape of their spines (more likely designed for running rather than swimming) as opposed the horizontal design and movement of fish.
Previous excavations have also dug up evidence of the whales evolutionary and physiological changes.
Ancestral bones show progressive cycles of change and transformation as whales moved from traveling on land to swimming in the oceans.
If you’d like to learn more about the evolution of whales check out our article on whale evolution.
Cetacea/Shark Prey Relationship
Although whales are massive creatures they aren’t known for hunting or praying upon sharks.
In fact most whale species consume a diet consisting of fish, krill, cephalopods and other small sea creatures.
This is largely due to the fact that most whale species aren’t equipped in a way that would make hunting and killing sharks easy or even possible.
This is due either to a lack of teeth, not possessing the necessary teeth/anatomical features that would be needed for hunting/attacking sharks and/or a social structure that it not designed to hunt sharks.
With that said one species that has been known to successfully attack and kill sharks is the killer whale.
In fact these large marine mammals have been known to not only hunt and kill sharks, but also marine birds, seals, sea lions, otters, polar bears and large whales.
Killer whales have several characteristics that make them deadly adversaries against sharks and other forms of prey.
These dolphins have large sharp teeth that make it easy for them to tear apart flesh.
They also hunt in well-organized groups using team oriented hunting methods to isolate, immobilize and capture their prey.
By hunting in groups these dolphins are able to tire their prey out, keep them from escaping and defend themselves from being attacked.
Killer whales are also very fast and silent allowing them to sneak up on their prey and attack them at the last moment.
In addition to their hunting methods and social structure killer whales have a highly developed echolocation system that allows them to observe their surroundings using sound, which allows them to easily navigate the ocean, even in pitch black environments.
Echolocation allows killer whales to detect the speed, direction, size, density, elevation and type of object they are observing in order to better understand the food they are hunting and develop a strategy for capturing their prey.
As stated earlier although killer whales are known to attack and kill sharks it doesn’t seem to be a common behavior.
Killer whales may attack sharks when other forms of food are unavailable or in areas where sharks may be fairly abundant and somewhat defenseless.
When it comes to other whale species they may not hunt sharks but they have been known to defend their young from potential shark attacks.
In these cases a whale or group of whales may use their massive size to block the sharks from attacking their children and may lunge at or attack the sharks to defend themselves.
While it may help deter a shark form attacking a small child it is unlikely that a shark will be killed from this sort of self-defense.
It is possible that charging, lunging, fin slapping, tail slapping or breaching may stun the shark or cause bodily injury which can provide the whales with enough time to escape or scare the shark into giving up.
On rare cases a defensive behavior may actually kill the shark either due to suffocation or significant injuries/shock.
The techniques a whale uses and the amount of effort they put into defending themselves against sharks may depend on the whales species, pods size, social structure or individual size.
Humans and Whales
Believe it or not humans and whales didn’t always get along.
Prior to the 20th century whales were frequently hunted for their meat and their blubber which was sold and used to make various materials that could be warn, eaten and/or used in other products.
In fact it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that whales stopped being hunted (in most countries) due to the possibility of extinction and a growing concern of numerous whale populations by various government agencies and conservation organizations.
For centuries whales were hunted for their raw materials.
Food, clothing, tools, transmission oil and various other materials we’re commonly made items created from whale, blubber, meat and bone.
Oil played an especially significant role during the whaling era.
Margarine, lamps, candle wax, transmission and even machine parts benefited from the use of whale oil.
This oily substance was extracted from the whales blubber or in the case of the sperm whale from the whales spermaceti organ which is located in its head.
In the case of the sperm whale whalers would obtain the sperm whales oil by extracting it from the whale’s head cavities.
In other species the whales blubber would be cooked in order to extract its oil.
Over the decades the creation of alternative resources along with the creation of organizations and a new perspective on whaling led to the decline of the commercial whaling business.
Groups such as the International Whaling Commission created new policies to aid in the protection of whales and governmental/non governmental organizations were created to monitor and police whaling to ensure that whales weren’t being unnecessarily killed or over hunted.
However, even with the many efforts put into place to protect the species there are still a few countries that hunt them today for food and raw materials.
Decades of whaling along with pollution have caused many species of whale to become endangered and a few have even become extinct or unable to reproduce fast enough to ensure the survival of their species.
Nowadays many individuals and groups are playing catch up to protect as many endangered species as possible.
Whale Watching and Other Activities
Today, the perception of whales has changed drastically.
In the 1900’s a new hobby known as whale watching began to grow as spectators around the world gathered to observe various species of whale in their natural habitat.
Cameras in hand people would line up to get a chance to watch whales living their lives in their natural habitat.
In order to prevent harming whales boats and observational area’s play a large role in allowing spectators to watch these marine mammals without causing much interference.
Rules are also put into place to prevent people from getting too close to whales so that they do not impact their natural state of well-being
Due to the popularity of this new activity whale watching has become a billion dollar business, employing thousands of workers and creating economic growth for both cities and states worldwide.
In addition to whale watching whales and dolphins have also played major roles in many of the recent films and t.v. shows that have been produced such as:
Popular Whale T.V. Shows and Movies
- Whale Wars
- Blue Whale Odyssey
- Big Miracle
- Free Willy
Popular Whale Books
- Moby Dick
- The Year Of The Whale
- Whale Nation
- In The Heart Of The Sea
Over the centuries various stories of mythical whales have been passed down in mythology and religion, and continue to live on today.
In fact whales have been inhibiting this earth for millions of years and have existed well into the B.C. era where haunting tales of vicious sea creatures attacking boats and eating people can be seen etched into stone and walls or in some cases have remained the surviving stories of old folk lure tales.
References in religion have also shared stories of humans being swallowed and attacked by whales.
However despite all this talk about whales attacking humans many species remain fairly friendly in our presence.
There have been no known or recorded cases of whales ever eating people and/or swallowing humans and only in rare cases has a human been attacked and/or killed by any cetacean.
In fact if you look at attacks made on humans by these marine mammals it would be pretty difficult to find any real evidence of them being the types of animals you hear about in mythology.
With that said there are a few stories of killer whales held in captivity grabbing hold of a persons limb, hair or clothing and pulling them under the water until they drown, but these stories are rare and in no cases we’re any body parts ever consumed.
In regards to most other dolphin species attacks on humans are also rare and in many cases dolphins are relatively friendly towards people.
In fact dolphins have been observed helping people get back to shore when lost at sea and have even defended people against shark attacks.
Dolphins tend to only attack humans when they have had previous experiences of abuse from one or several humans and have learned to fear people or be protective when around humans or when they feel isolated from their habitat or friends/family for extended periods of time.
Even though whales and dolphins are generally known as being friendly you should never approach them in the wild or even in captivity without the aid and supervision of an expert trainer.
For more information on this topic check out: Whales in Mythology
Threats Towards Humans
While whales are capable of attacking humans the likelihood that they actually would is very low.
Whales are generally solitary, slow-moving marine animals that aren’t usually aggressive unless they are provoked, threatened or frightened.
Because whales possess massive bodies their large size helps defend them against most predators that don’t have the energy, strength or ability to successfully hunt and kill them; so most large whales rarely have anything to worry about.
In fact there may only be a handful of cases in history where a whale attacked a human, however it is likely that these attacks probably occurred as a form of self-defense or because the whale was frightened.
These potential attacks likely involved a whale hitting a boat or large aquatic vehicle; not particularity targeting a human but potentially the large object that may have appeared threatening to them.
It is also possible that whales may have occasionally attacked whaling boats or became aggressive towards the whalers that hunted them, however little information confirming this exits.
In some instances a whale may accidentally come into close contact with a human or a boat while hunting for food or breaching the water.
In fact a number of cases in recent years have seen whales leaping out of the water only feet apart from a human as it is attempting to capture its prey.
There’s also been a number of cases where a large whale landed on a boat while breaching the water.
While these instances do occur from time to time whale attacks are so rare that it is hard to find any substantial documented cases of whales attacking humans, even when searching for records online.
And even if a whale were to attempt to swallow a human almost all species have throats that are way too small to successfully swallow large animals (such as people).
Protecting the whales
When it comes to protecting the whale species there are a number of things that can be done to improve their lives.
For starters educating more people about the current condition of numerous whale species will help people make more conscious efforts and decisions in regards to how they treat marine mammals and their environment.
One of the best ways that a person can help in their own home to save whales is to recycle as much plastic as possible that might otherwise end up in the ocean.
This may include cutting up any pieces of plastic that might cause problems with the internal digestion of the whale.
For example, just cutting up the plastic rings that once held a six-pack of soda together reduces the possibility that a ring might harm the whale if the animal accidentally consumes some garbage.
In addition, easy steps taken to recycle garbage and put less waste into the environment helps to keep the oceans clean for future generations of whales, since a large amount of trash and rubbish that isn’t recycled does end up in the oceans to pollute vast bodies of water.
Minimizing the amount of harmful chemicals that are flushed down the drain or disposed of improperly can reduce habitat degradation and help prevent runoff into otherwise clean bodies of water.
All recycling and conservation efforts on land are valuable projects for keeping the oceans clean for future generations of whales.
Individuals can also adopt a whale or take part in conservation groups aimed at helping to improve the lives of marine mammals.
In countries where whale/dolphin products are being used and/or sold you can make sure that you avoid buying/using these products.
In some cases dolphin meat has been seen being used as an alternative for tuna.
By making yourself and those around you more informed you take can take a better stance towards improving the lives of marine mammals everywhere.