Ocean Noise Reduction – GlobalSaving marine life could be as easy as turning down the volume
Whales are magnificent creatures...they are highly intelligent, communicate through complex language, and provide the nutrients that help phytoplankton produce more than 50% of the world’s oxygen!
Did you know that all species of whales are grouped into two suborders? There are 76 species of odontocetes (toothed whales) that use teeth to hunt for prey, and 14 species of mysticetes (baleen whales) that use baleen plates to filter food from the water column. Read on to learn more about how to identify some of the different types of whales that swim in our oceans.
Mysticetes (baleen whales)
Acrobatic and charismatic, humpback whales are one of the most well-known whale species and the stars of whale watching tours. These baleen whales can grow to over 50 feet (15 meters) in length and weigh over 40 tons (36 tonnes)! They are easily recognized by their long pectoral fins—the longest of any whale species at one third of the whale's length. In fact, their scientific name, Megaptera novaeangliae, translates to “big winged New Englander." They also have an irregularly shaped dorsal fin and a hump that gives them their name. Knobby bumps on a humpback’s head are enlarged hair follicles called tubercles that contain at least one sensory hair! Their tail, or flukes, are uniquely individual—much like a human fingerprint. Patterns of black and white color along with scarring on the underside of the flukes help to identify individual humpbacks.
What is the largest animal to exist on earth? That title goes to the blue whale! This baleen whale can grow up to 100 feet (30 meters) in length and weigh as much as 100 tons (90 tonnes)—their tongue alone weighs as much as an elephant! Blue whales are sleek and slender with a streamlined appearance. They have blue-grey bodies that appear bright blue underwater, leading to the origin of their name. Blue whales are also the loudest animal on earth, emitting low frequency vocalizations as loud as a jet plane that can be heard by other whales for hundreds of miles underwater.
The right whale gets its name from the fact that whalers thought it was the "right" whale to hunt due to its slow swimming speed and large amount of blubber to render oil. As a result, right whales have been hunted to the point of near extinction. Commercial whaling was banned in 1986, but the practice continues in some countries using loopholes in regulations. Today, all populations of right whales are protected.
A robust whale, they grow up to 50 feet (15 meters) in length and weigh up to 70 tons (63 tonnes) with stocky, black bodies that have white patches on their undersides. They lack a dorsal fin and have paddle-like pectoral flippers, along with broad, smooth-edged flukes that help to propel their massive bodies. One of the most distinct features of right whales are their huge heads with roughened white patches called callosities that are covered in whale lice (cyamids). Callosities patterns are unique to each whale, making it the perfect way for researchers to identify individuals. Another tell-tale sign of a right whale is the “V” shaped blow or spout produced when the whale takes a breath.
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered species of right whale, with an estimated population of under 350 individuals remaining. IFAW is leading efforts to protect this critically endangered North Atlantic right whale from the dangers of entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes.
What’s the second largest mammal on earth next to the blue whale? That would be the finback or fin whale! Named for its prominent dorsal fin two thirds of the way back on its body, fin whales can grow to 80 feet (24 meters) in length and weigh up to 70 tons (63 tonnes). One of the fastest swimming whales, they are nicknamed “greyhounds of the sea”. Fin whales belongs to the rorqual family—a group of whales including blue whales and humpbacks that have pleats or grooves along their throat which expand to take in massive amounts of water and prey. The perfect adaptation to grow large!
Fin whales have streamlined grey bodies with lighter irregular white patches called chevrons that begin behind their blowholes and continue down onto their sides. They also have asymmetrical coloration— their lower bottom right jaw is white in color, while the rest of the jaw is uniformly grey. It’s thought this asymmetry helps to corral prey while hunting —pretty fancy!
Fun fact: IFAW and IceWhale created the "Meet Us Don't Eat Us" campaign in Iceland to gain support for sustainable whale watching over commercial whaling and consumption.
Odontocetes (toothed whales)
Sperm whales are the largest toothed whales. Growing to 60 feet (18 meters) in length and weighing 45 tons (40 tonnes), sperm whales have a dark gray body with a wrinkled appearance. These whales have a small jaw and a large, blunt head with one blowhole off center on the left side. They are one of the deepest diving whales, spending more than an hour on dives at depths up to 600 meters to hunt for giant squid using echolocation clicks and pulses. A primary target in commercial whaling, sperm whales are named from the waxy, oil in their melon’s called "spermaceti." This oil was used in products like candles and oil lamps. Nearly decimated by hunting in the 1800s, sperm whales are now endangered and protected throughout their range.
The orca, also called killer whale, is one of the most well recognized toothed whales in the ocean with their distinct black and white color pattern. As the largest member of the dolphin family, they can grow to 32 feet (9 meters) in length and weigh up to nine tons (8 tonnes). Males have a tall, triangular dorsal fin that can reach up to six feet (2 meters) in height, while females have a smaller, curved dorsal fin. One of the most well studied species in the world, orcas are highly intelligent with a complex social structure. They are known to be fierce hunters earning them the nickname “wolves of the sea."
The beluga whale is a species of toothed whale that lives in the Arctic and sub-Arctic areas of the Northern Hemisphere, growing to 15 feet (4.5 meters) in length and weighing up to 1.5 tons (1.3 tonnes). They can be recognized by their uniform white color, which is how they received their name “beluga”— the Russian word for white. They have a round head with a bulbous forehead called a melon. One of the most vocal species of whale, they are nicknamed “sea canary” by early mariners that could hear their vocalizations through the hulls of their boats.
No matter the species, whales are incredibly important for the health of our oceans. They circulate nutrients, help feed phytoplankton, store carbon, and help us combat climate change. Without them, our oceans and planet would be in danger. Unfortunately, deadly threats like ocean noise pollution, plastic pollution, collisions with ships, whaling, and entanglements in fishing gear continue to push whale species closer to extinction.