Whales form part of the Cetacean family of mammals, and are true giants in the world of marine mammals, and some of the largest animals on our planet. Whales are grouped into two different types, the Baleen Whales, which are named after the plates through which they filter food, and toothed whales. Although there are some species of Whale, such as the Pygmy Right that very little is known about, this article will cover the majority of Whale Species and where you can find them.
The Blue Whale is quite simply a record breaker. As the largest animal on earth, it can weigh in at over 200 tons and grow up to 100 feet. These marine giants can be found in all of the worlds oceans, though in the summer months many can be sighted feeding in Polar waters, and in winter the warmer waters around the Equator. They feed on a small species of Shrimp called Krill, and can consume up to 3 to 4% of their body weight in a day when feeding. National Geographic report that these whales are currently on the World Conservation Union Red List, though the 10-25,000 left swimming the oceans should have an average lifespan of 80 years.
Just like its larger Baleen cousin, The Fin Whale was subjected to hunting in the 20th century, and still suffers during whaling season, particularly in Iceland and Japan. Despite being endangered, it’s still the second largest whale in the Ocean, and has several sub species. The slender Fin Whale has a more varied diet than its larger cousin, taking in not only Krill, but squid and small species of schooling fish. The Fin Whale is also known for being more sociable than other whale species, feeding in groups, and its vocalization is at the lowest frequency of any animal.
Some species however are fussy about the waters they inhabit. Sei Whales can be found in most oceans, though they avoid polar and tropical waters, and are often found in deep offshore areas. Their similar looking cousin, the Brydes Whale however, prefers tropical and sub tropical waters across the world, such as those off the coast of South Africa. This species is distinctive as 25% of its body is taken up by the head, while they are also known for irregular behavioural patterns, and breeding in alternate years.
Although as giants of the Ocean, you wouldn’t always think it, some breeds of Whale are actually known for being sleek and fast through the water, such as the Humpback Whale. These Whales have the aid of a Fluke, or large tail fin to propel them through coastal waters, as they hunt out Krill and Plankton, with mothers and their calves swimming close together, showing gestures of affection. While these Whales are more of a common sight, the Right Whale is the rarest Whale species. Endangered, and once close to extinction, numbers also grow slowly with females only reaching maturity at age ten. Today, the Right Whales are divided into two sub species, the Northern Right, and Southern Right Whale, both found in mild coastal waters.
While the Right Whale is still endangered, there has been a successful recovery in the Whale family, with the Gray Whale. Although like many species it’s still protected by international law, so in years to come many more Gray Whales, with their distinctive snouts covered in parasites, will be spotted either in their summer haunt off the Alaskan Coast, or on their migration towards Mexico during the Winter.
Last but by no means least, is the baby of the Baleen Family, the commonly sighted Minke Whale. Although small by Whale standards, they certainly make themselves heard, with their vocalization reaching levels equivalent to a jet plane taking off! Minke Whales are a common sight for Whale Watchers and can be found in most seas and oceans, although they avoid Polar Waters.
The remainder of the Whale family are classified as Toothed Whales, and comprise three main species. These are the Sperm Whale, Beluga, and Beaked Whale.
When you consider the size of their head, and forehead, it should come as no surprise that the Sperm Whales contain one of the largest brains of any living creature. They are also filled with a substance called Spermacetti, which is thought to help buoyancy. Feeding with their teeth, instead of Baleen plates, means Sperm Whales can also find room in their bodies for up to one ton of fish and squid every day. Female and young Sperm Whales are commonly found in Tropical Waters, while the males migrate further up, and only return to the Equator to breed. While these mammals separate, another species, The Beluga Whale is known for being very sociable. These distinct and vocal creatures live in small pods off the arctic coastline. Their unusual white colour marks them out from other species, and they are also the smallest of the Whale family. Beluga Whales migrate when the arctic seas freeze over, although some are trapped by the ice, or hunted by local people.
Last, but by no means least there is the Beaked Whale family, which comprises of some 20 sub species, though only four of these have information of any substance recorded about them. Beaked Whales are somewhat similar in appearance to Dolphins, although much more elusive. They can be found in many oceans across the world, but choose to live in remote, deeper waters. One of their distinguishing features is also their ability to dive for long periods. Although part of the Toothed Whale family, Beaked Whales do not use their teeth to feed; instead a suction like with their tongue moves their prey into their mouth. Small, little known, and due to variations in sub species, difficult to indentify, but the Beaked Whale, just like any other Whale species are fascinating creatures, and there is so much to learn about all their habits, behaviours, communication, appearance, breeding patterns, and the part they play in marine life.