Hot on the heels of Hippo Day comes World Whale Day on February 18th! This day was created as part of the Maui Whale Festival by the Pacific Whale Foundation in Hawaii, and is meant to honor the migrating humpback whales that swim near the Hawaiian coast. But we think it’s a great day to rip into some facts about all whales! Here we go:
- “Whale” is an informal name for aquatic, ocean-dwelling mammals in the infraorder Cetacea, excluding dolphins and porpoises. Whales are divided into two groups based on what’s in their mouths. The Odontocetes, or toothed whales, include sperm whales, belugas, narwhals and beaked whales. Their mouths are full of, well, teeth. The Mysticetes, on the other hand, have mouths full of “baleen”, a system of rigid plates covered in hairy bristles that help them filter tiny plankton out of the water, that they then eat. Examples of baleen whales include the right whale, bowhead whale and gray whale.
|Right Whale (a baleen whale)||Cetaceans||Beluga Whale (a toothed whale)|
- Many sea animals referred to as “whales” are not technically considered whales. This includes the killer whale, pygmy killer whale, melon-headed whale, false killer whale, and pilot whale. Despite their common names, all of these creatures are actually dolphins. However, they are closely related to the toothed whales, and the term “whale” does not actually have any scientific distinction. Many people use the word "whale" to apply to all cetaceans.
|Pilot Whale (actually a dolphin)||Killer Whale (actually a dolphin)||Whale Shark (actually a shark)|
- For many years, baleen whales and sperm whales were hunted relentlessly by humans, leading to their numbers decreasing dramatically. Today, many whale species are endangered, although the practice of whaling (hunting whales) has been outlawed in most of the world. Conservation efforts are helping these populations rebound.
- The largest whale is the blue whale. It can grow over 100 feet long and is the largest animal alive today. The largest of the toothed whales, and the largest toothed predator in the world, is the sperm whale, which grows to more than 60 feet long. The smallest is the dwarf sperm whale, which grows to just under nine feet in length. The smallest cetacean, including dolphins and porpoises, is the critically endangered vaquita porpoise, which grows to less than five feet long.
|Blue Whale||Sperm Whale||Vaquita Porpoise|
- The fastest whale is the sei whale, which can swim up to 23 miles per hour over short distances. If dolphins are included, pilot whales and killer whales share the top spot, as they are capable of speeds over 30 miles per hour. For comparison, the fastest human being can run 28 miles per hour over a distance of 100 meters.
- Humpback whales undertake the longest migration of any mammal species. Certain populations of these whales can migrate 5,200 miles from Antarctica to Costa Rica. One whale named Humphrey, who was part of a population that migrates yearly from Mexico to Alaska, ended up in the San Francisco Bay twice, in 1985 and 1990, and had to be guided out by rescue operations set up by the Coast Guard and the Marine Mammal Center.
|Sei Whale||Humpback Whale|
- Whales communicate without each other through underwater calls, with some species producing elaborate “songs”. A whale known as “the loneliest whale” is known for its unique call, which at 49 to 52 hertz is at a much higher frequency than a typical whale song. It’s called the loneliest whale due to the idea that its higher pitch made communication with other whales impossible or difficult, though this may not actual be the case. Its species is unknown.
|Narwhal||Gray Whale||Bowhead Whale|
We hope these whale-centric facts have helped you learn more about these oceanic giants. Now go out there and share your whale knowledge with the world!