22 Jan 2024

WHALE WONDERS: 13 INTERESTING WHALE FACTS

Dive into the wonderful world of whales! 

They may be hard to spot from land, but these elusive gentle giants come in all shapes, sizes, and colours and can be found across the world. Some live in groups, some are solitary, but they all play a vital role in keeping our oceans and planet healthy. 

From their incredible migratory journeys to their fascinating sleeping habits, discover the mysteries of whales and why it’s so important we protect them and their ocean home.    

1. Are whales mammals or fish?

Whales are mammals. Unlike the majority of the ocean’s cold-blooded residents, whales are warm-blooded. As marine mammals, they give birth to live offspring instead of laying eggs like fish. Rather than having gills, whales breathe air when surfacing through a blowhole at the top of their heads. 

2. What’s the biggest whale?

Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) in Mirissa, Sri Lanka
Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) in Mirissa, Sri Lanka © Shutterstock / Ajit S N / WWF

The Antarctic blue whale is the largest of over 90 whale species and also the biggest known animal to have ever lived on Earth. Reaching up to 30m in length, blue whales tip the scales weighing up to 180,000kg - that’s the same as approximately 33 elephants! These marine giants migrate between frigid polar seas and warm tropical waters and can eat a whopping 3,600kg of krill per day. 

3. How do whales sleep?

Two sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) sleeping vertically in the ocean.
Two sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) sleeping vertically in the ocean. © Shutterstock / ohrim / WWF

Whales are unique mammals as they are voluntary breathers, meaning they have to manually regulate their breathing. If they were to completely shut down their brain while sleeping, they would risk drowning. So, they cleverly rest only half of their brain and maintain control of their breathing. Sperm whales go further with a fascinating sleep routine, reaching their deepest slumber by floating vertically near the surface.

4. Is it true that some whales have teeth and some don't?

There are two types of whale - toothed and baleen. Toothed whales, such as the sperm whale, have actual teeth, allowing them to feed on fish and squid. On the other hand (or flipper), baleen whales have hundreds of ‘baleen’ lining their mouths. These are hard, skin-like bristles made of keratin - the same thing our hair, skin, and nails are made from! Baleen whales eat small organisms like krill and plankton. The fin whale, one of many baleen whales found in Australia, boasts up to 480 baleen bristles.

5. How do whales communicate?

Whales use a variety of clicks, whistles and songs to communicate. Each vocalisation serves a distinct purpose, from finding food to socialising. Whales living in pods even have their own ‘dialect’ to help differentiate between their family and strangers. Blue whales set the world record for the loudest animal on Earth, reaching up to 180 decibels - that’s as loud as a jet plane! Researchers believe that some whale songs can travel between groups nearly 8,000km apart.

Humpback whale breaching. Coffs Harbour, New South Wales, Australia.
Humpback whale breaching. Coffs Harbour, New South Wales, Australia. © Chris Farrell Nature Photography / WWF-Aus

Whales also communicate through body language. Breaching, tail slapping and bobbing up and down in a manner known as ‘spy hopping’ are all common methods of expression. Keep an eye out for these signals in the water next time you’re at the beach to witness whale communication in action!

6. Are some whales better divers than others? 

Most whales swim no further than 1,000m below the surface. However, sperm whales are expert divers known to submerge to depths of two kilometres for up to 60 minutes hunting for a meal, which can include giant squid.

7. How do whales keep our atmosphere healthy and support the generation of oxygen?

Whales play a critical role in keeping our planet healthy. For instance, their feeding patterns, where they eat at depth and defecate near the surface, all help phytoplankton production. This process is crucial as phytoplankton generate over half of Earth’s oxygen, absorbing around 40% of all carbon dioxide. When whales die, they descend to the seabed, and as they settle there, so does the carbon that is stored in their bodies.

While carbon is released into the atmosphere after death for most land animals, at the depths of the ocean floor, it can remain for centuries in a phenomenon known as ‘blue carbon.’ For large marine creatures like whales, it can take up to 1,000 years for the elements from their carcasses to cycle their way back up to the surface.

Close up of a humpback whale's (Megaptera novaeangliae) fluke on Brother's Islands, South East Alaska, United States.
Close up of a humpback whale's (Megaptera novaeangliae) fluke on Brother's Islands, South East Alaska, United States. © Richard Barrett / WWF-UK

Over their lifetime, these gentle giants capture a staggering amount of carbon - equivalent to thousands of trees. 

8. Do whales have multiple stomachs?

While most whales have a single stomach, some boast a more complex digestive system. Sperm whales have four distinct stomach chambers, while Baird’s beaked whales can have up to thirteen! These different chambers help break down and extract nutrients from their food.

9. Are orcas whales or dolphins?

Killer whale / Orca (Orcinus orca) just below the surface, Kristiansund, Nordmore, Norway.
Killer whale / Orca (Orcinus orca) just below the surface, Kristiansund, Nordmore, Norway. © Wild Wonders of Europe / Nils Aukan / WWF

Although commonly referred to as ‘killer whales’, orcas are part of the dolphin family. While they share similarities with whales, their curved bodies and sleek manoeuvers bear much more physical and behavioural resemblance to dolphins. Like dolphins, orcas live in pods, working together and using calculated hunting tactics that earn them their title as one of the ocean’s top predators.

10. How do whales raise their young?

Southern right whale and calf along the coast of the Head of the BIght, South Australia.
Southern right whale and calf along the coast of the Head of the BIght, South Australia. © Fredrik Christiansen / Murdoch University

Whale pregnancies last an average of 10-18 months. Once born, calves stay close to their mothers for protection and care. Whales feed their young milk, and calves rely on this as their main food source until they reach maturity. Pods also contribute to the upbringing, teaching vital skills like hunting and communication. Calves stay with their mothers for an average of one year before becoming independent, and depending on the species, juvenile males can join other pods (including ‘bachelor pods’ with other young juveniles)!

11. Are whales threatened around the world?

Six of the thirteen great whale species are now endangered or vulnerable due to increasing threats from human interference. In Australia, dangers like ship strikes, bycatch, chemical and noise pollution, and climate change impact their food supply, all posing significant risks to whales. Every year, about 300,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises perish globally due to fishing gear entanglement alone. Whales play an important role in keeping marine ecosystems healthy, so we need to do all we can now to safeguard their future.

12. What are ‘whale superhighways’?

Every year whales migrate along Australia's east and west coasts following specific routes known as 'whale superhighways' or ‘blue corridors’. These migratory routes allow whales to move between different ocean habitats – areas where they feed, mate, give birth, nurse young, and socialise. Whales rely on these critical habitats and the migration routes that connect them for survival. Sadly, these paths often overlap with human activity, endangering whale populations in these areas.

Prof Lars Bejder from Murdoch University Cetacean Research Unit (MUCRU) and Chris Johnson (Global Lead Protecting Whales & Dolphins) out in the field conducting research on southern right whales (Eubalaena Australis).
Prof Lars Bejder from Murdoch University Cetacean Research Unit (MUCRU) and Chris Johnson (Global Lead Protecting Whales & Dolphins) out in the field conducting research on southern right whales (Eubalaena Australis). © Alumdena Alonso / Murdoch University

WWF and our partners are using scientific evidence from years of satellite tracking data to map ‘Whale superhighways’ and their migratory routes worldwide. By integrating this with the information we have on threats to whales, we’re aiming to find solutions and inform effective policy solutions that protect and secure critical ocean habitats. Our goal is to connect entire networks of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to ensure safe passage for whales and all marine animals.

13. How can I help protect whales? 

Together, we can protect whales and make their epic journeys safer for years to come. Stay tuned to found out how you can get involved to support a safe passage for whales around Australia and beyond.