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Fishin' for Facts: Whales

Scientific names:

     Class Mammalia
        Order Cetacea (all whales)
            Suborder Mysticeti (Baleen whales)
            Suborder Odontoceti (Toothed whales)

There are more than 80 different kinds of whales. Whales are mammals. That means they are born live, are warm-blooded, have hair (at some point in their development) and breathe air.

Whale Basics

Flippers: All whales have two "pectoral" flippers. They use them for stopping and turning.

Tail Flukes: All whales have tail flukes. (Each side of the tail is called a "fluke.") Tails vary in size and shape depending on the kind of whale and individual.  With certain species, scientists identify individual animals just by the color pattern, shape and scarring of the tail (and dorsal fin).



Dorsal Fin: Some whales have a dorsal fin. Some do not. For example, killer whales (like these in the photo) have a dorsal fin. Beluga whales and gray whales do not. Fins vary in size and shape depending on the kind of whale and individual.  Scientists identify some individual animals just by the color pattern, shape and scarring of their dorsal fin.



Blowholes: Whales breathe air. A whale's nose is on top of its head. It is called a blowhole. Toothed whales have one opening or nostril. Baleen whales have two.  When whale watching, you can look for the whale's blow -- or when it exhales. A gray whale's blow is heart-shaped.


Baleen whales do not have teeth. They have baleen. Baleen is made of the same material as our fingernails or hair. Each baleen plate overlaps the next. Baleen plates hang from the upper jaw of the whale, sort of like vertical blinds. Each plate is frayed on the bottom and sides. (It feels like thick plastic  hair!) The fringed edges mat together and help trap food. Here is a photo of a baleen whale with its mouth open. Pretty cool, huh? Right whales have the longest baleen.


Other Whale Highlights

The largest is the blue whale, which can reach lengths up to 90 feet long. One of the smallest species is the Commerson's dolphin which reaches lengths up to 3 to 4 feet. Some whales travel in small groups with other whales of the same species, others do not.
bullet Diet
What a whale eats depends on the kind of whale. Baleen whales eat plankton such as krill and small fish. Depending on the kind of toothed whale, it may eat may eat fish, squid, crabs, shrimp, seastars, sharks, seals, sea lions, penguins, even other whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Whales are found all over the world. You can find whales, like the beluga, narwhal, and bowhead in the seas near the Arctic. Near the Antarctic you might find blue whales and Arnoux's beaked whales. Many people are surprised to discover there are whales living in some freshwater rivers. If you go to South America you might see a boto (aka Amazon river dolphin). Some species of whales, like the killer whale, can be found in all oceans of the world. Some of the most endangered species include the Chinese river dolphin, vaquita, and northern right whale.

bulletWhales in history

Many years ago, baleen whales were hunted for their blubber, baleen, meat and bones.  Before we had plastic, the baleen was used to make corset stays, combs, even buggy whips. Before modern synthetics and other replacements, whale blubber was an important commercial product. Melted down to an oil, it was used for heating, lubrication, and lamps. It was also used in the processing of soap, candles, paint, textiles, margarine, and rope. Some people also eat whale meat and blubber. The blubber was melted down and used for oils. And, of course, the meat (and sometimes blubber) was eaten.

Today, in some rare cases whales are hunted for meat. In general, this is mostly done by local or "native" peoples that rely on whale meat to survive. Some countries still hunt certain species of whale. For those cultures, hunting whales and marine mammals is a part of their heritage -- and may be their only food source. Generally, subsistence hunting is regulated and does not affect the population as a whole.

However, human impact hasn't stopped. During a recent scientific expedition, researchers were unable to find even one Chinese river dolphin, leaving many to think they are now extinct. There are only about 125 to 150 vaquita left.  Other whales struggle against growing human populations, competition for food...and other challenges still face whales. There are some bright spots. The humpback whale population continues to grow, and, the Pacific gray whale population continues to thrive at all time high numbers.

What can you do to help? REDUCE, REUSE, AND RECYCLE. Protecting whales or any ocean animal starts in your home!


Whale Questions

bulletDo sharks and dolphins fight?  Find out...
bulletHow can marine mammals hold their breath for so long?


Citation: Musgrave, Ruth A. Whales. Fishin' for Facts. WhaleTimes, Inc. ( 2011

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