The largest animal – the blue whale – sets a number of impressive records. It’s also one of the loudest and hungriest species on Earth. Blue whales are simply enormous, ranging in length from 24-33 metres, and females are up to 10 metres longer than their male counterparts. Tipping the scales at up to 200 tonnes, a whale needs to eat about four tonnes of krill (shrimp-like crustaceans) daily. To put that into perspective, an adult male African elephant weighs six tonnes!
In order to eat, the blue whale expands its throat plates and takes in both water and krill, then it pushes the water out through its baleen plates, swallowing the krill that has stayed inside its mouth.
A blue whale's heart is the size of a small car and its can be detected more than three kilometres away. But that's nothing compared to its call. The low-frequency whistle is louder than a jet engine, reaching 188 decibels, compared to a jet engine's paltry 140 decibels. This call can be heard for hundreds of kilometres, which is handy if you’re scouring our vast oceans for a mate.
And if you’ve ever wondered whether a blue whale is actually blue… they are in fact a lightly mottled blue-grey, with light grey or yellow-white undersides.
What we're doingSee our projects on the blue whale.
Uncovering blue whale distribution in the Southern Hemisphere
WWF is collaborating with researchers in Chile to understand the migratory routes and critical habitat of blue whales in the Southern Hemisphere. We are using satellite tags to gather data on movements, migration and feeding patterns. This information will help us to identify and protect critical whale feeding and breeding areas.
Blue whale protection
The majority of WWF's global conservation work to protect whales and dolphins takes place within the context of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Over coming years we will try to raise awareness of the need for blue whale conservation at the national and regional levels, and secure protection through Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).
Marine protected areas in Chile
WWF is actively promoting the creation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in whale habitats, such as the network of MPAs that WWF-Chile has been advocating for in Corcovado Gulf to protect blue whale foraging and nursing grounds. In 2014, three protected areas covering 120,000 hectares were approved by the Chilean Government.
Why it matters
Whales are an important part of the marine food chain and play a huge role in maintaining the health of our oceans. While it may be considered an endangered species, the blue whale is truly international, occurring in all oceans except the Arctic, and enclosed seas of course. Before whaling there may have been as many as 250,000; today, it is one of the world's rarest species, with the population of blue whales numbering just 10,000-25,000. Most biologists consider it among the most endangered of the great whales. Only one population, in the northeast Pacific off California, is showing real signs of recovery and it contains around 3,000 animals. Blue whales require enormous amounts of food, but they’re a boon to rather than a burden on the ocean ecosystem. Their iron-rich poo is a really important source of nutrients in the marine food chain, promoting Southern Ocean productivity, which boosts fishery yields. These nutrients, particularly iron and nitrogen, are vital for phytoplankton, at the base of the food chain. Because plankton help to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, you could go as far as to say that blue whales are carbon neutral. However you calculate it, whales are their feeding grounds and providing sufficient nutrients to sustain krill populations.
Length: 24-33 m / Weight: Up to 200 tonnesPopulation: 10,000-25,000
Listed as Endangered (IUCN Red List)
Did you know?
Blue whales dive for 10-20 minutes, and usually feed at depths of less than 100 metres.
Although there is debate surrounding the taxonomy of blue whales, there are five distinct subspecies: Antarctic blue whales in the Southern Ocean (Balaenoptera musculus intermedia); North Atlantic and North Pacific blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus musculus); Pygmy blue whales, found in the Southern Indian Ocean (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda); Northern Indian Ocean (Balaenoptera musculus indica) and South Pacific Ocean (Balaenoptera musculus unnamed species) whales.
Warming oceans, and changes to ocean processes may alter the distribution and supply of food (mostly krill and copepods) available to the southern right whale. Research suggests that warming waters may also hamper whale reproduction.
Marine pollution, 80% of which is generated by land-based activities, is having a devastating effect on our oceans. As well as degrading habitat, pollution directly threatens marine animals and plants, some of them rare and endangered.
Climate change, ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the primary threats faced by blue whales. Additional threats that could potentially affect whale populations include anthropogenic noise, habitat degradation, pollution and vessel disturbance.
Noise pollution Blue whales use sound to find their partners and perhaps location of topographic features and prey. Man-made noise can potentially mask their vocalisations, throwing them off-course and disrupting both movements and breeding. Potential sources of man-made underwater noise in Australian waters include seismic surveys for oil, gas and geophysical exploration; industrial development (such as drilling, pile-driving, blasting and dredging); gas processing and shipping. Increased shipping traffic Vessels can collide with whales or disrupt their behaviour. For millions of years, whales have cruised the world's oceans with hardly a care, their sheer size leaving them largely free from danger. The blue whale has never had to learn to defend itself, which makes blue whales particularly susceptible to deadly collisions with ships. Entanglement in fishing gear Entanglements can be very dangerous for whales. They may drag gear around for a long time, with the line having a 'ball-and-chain' effect, limiting its ability to feed and eventually compromising its health.
What you can do to help
- Climate change is a growing threat to whales, so we need to send a message to our leaders that warming must be limited to under 2° Celsius.
- Support efforts to improve fishing gear by only buying seafood that is Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified. This can help to reduce the incidence of marine bycatch, which kills whales and other marine life like turtles, dolphins and seabirds.