The belief that whales are so large they can swallow humans alive is as old as the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale. But while there have been instances of humans being engulfed in a whale’s mouth—including, most recently, a lobster fisherman in Cape Cod, Massachusetts—most whales are not even capable of swallowing people.
As Nicola Hodgins of the U.K. nonprofit Whale and Dolphin Conservation told National Geographic in the wake of the latest such incident, the throats of most whales are too small to swallow something as big as a human. For example, a humpback whale’s mouth can reach up to 10 feet but its throat can only stretch to about 15 inches in diameter. Only the sperm whale has a large enough throat to accommodate human-sized prey—but given that it lives in deep, offshore waters, this species is unlikely to ever encounter a person, let alone swallow one. (Humpback whales can't swallow a human. Here's why.)
This is just one of many misconceptions about whales that can be disproven by science. People are commonly surprised when they hear that not all whales can sing. These animals also can’t breathe underwater, and they don’t actually spray water from their blowholes. So we’re setting the record straight and busting the most common myths about these marine mammals.
Whales have hair
Although they don’t look furry, whales do have hair, Hodgins says, explaining that some whales and dolphins are born with what look like whiskers on their beaks. These whiskers quickly disappear because the animals have “absolutely no use” for hair to keep warm underwater. Although these whiskers are only visible in some species, the possession of hair follicles is an evolutionary trait that can be seen in all species, including humpback and blue whales.
That’s because whales are mammals—not fish—meaning they have hair, are warm-blooded and, rather than laying eggs, they give birth to live young that the mother nurses with her milk. (Explore the hidden world of whale culture.)
Whales can’t breathe underwater
As mammals, whales also “have lungs just like we do and breathe air like we do,” says Emily Cunningham, a marine biologist and trustee at Marine Conservation Society. She adds that people often “think that whales are a kind of fish—and that's not true at all.”
Whereas humans breathe through their nose and mouth, whales have a blowhole on the top of their head—or two in the case of baleen whales. This is “like a nostril,” says Cunningham. While it’s not the same as the human nose, this is where they breathe in and out.
Whales’ breathing is “very efficient,” adds Pippa Garrard, the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust’s education manager, and they have “conscious control” over their breathing and heart rate. Being able to regulate their oxygen levels is particularly important for deep-diving species. Once underwater, “they can then slow down their heart rate, and shunt the oxygenated blood to the areas that they need”—including their brain, heart, and muscles.
Whales expel air—not water—from their blowholes
When a whale surfaces after this impressive breath hold, Garrard says the tell-tale noise you hear “is them breathing out” before they inhale and dive back underwater. Often depicted in cartoons as a spout of water, she clarifies that “what we’re actually seeing is the whale’s breath.” As warm air from the whale’s lungs meets cold air outside, it condenses into a cloud, like seeing your breath on a cold day. This cloud also includes mucus and droplets of seawater that were covering the blowhole when the whale exhaled.
Scientists can learn a lot from a whale’s breath. “Lots of species spend around 95 percent of their life underwater, and we’d probably never get to see them if it wasn't for the fact that they have to come out to breathe,” Cunningham says. Scientists use special drones equipped with petri dishes to fly over exhaling whales and capture mucus samples without disturbing the animals. This enables researchers to “find out about their health, stress levels, presence of pollutants, and all kinds of cool stuff.” Scientists can also identify the whales by the shape of their spout.
The misconception that water comes out of a whale’s blowhole can be harmful when well-meaning members of the public do the wrong thing when trying to rescue a stranded whale. Dan Jarvis of the British Divers Marine Life Rescue describes instances of people finding a stranded whale and “pouring water directly into the blowhole thinking it's a fish and it needs to be filled up with water.” Sadly, they have unintentionally killed the animal as a result.
Not all whales sing
Most people are familiar with whale song: the sequence of predictable and sometimes complex sounds that can travel for huge distances through the ocean. But it’s not widely known that not all whales sing.
But while toothed whales, including sperm whales, pilot whales, and beluga whales, use sound for echolocation—at more than 200 decibels, a sperm whale’s clicks are so loud the vibrations could kill you—they do not sing. (Echolocation is nature’s built-in sonar. Here’s how it works.)
Also, only male baleen whales sing, says Laela Sayigh, a research specialist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and professor at Hampshire College. She explains that there are “a huge variety of ‘non-song calls,’ which both sexes make” but females are not known to produce whale song. Why the males sing is debated, Sayigh adds, but it is it is widely believed to be a reproductive display “to either compete with other males or attract females.”
Males learn how to sing from other whales. Different populations have different songs, which can change over time, allowing researchers to identify specific populations: for example, a new blue whale population was discovered in this way in the Indian Ocean in 2020. (Listen to the different ways that whales sing—from yaps to fin slaps.)
Whale sharks are not a type of whale
There are around 90 known whale species on Earth with new species still being discovered—recently, a third species of Berardius beaked whale was identified in the North Pacific in 2019, and the Rice’s whale in the Gulf of Mexico in 2021.
However, some so-called whales aren’t whales at all. Whale sharks grow as large as a whale—the largest recorded was bigger than a sperm whale, measuring 61.7 feet long—but Stella Diamant, founder of the Madagascar Whale Shark Project, explains they “are actually a true shark.”
Unlike whales, sharks are a type of fish. This means they are cold-blooded, have gills, and their skeleton is made from cartilage—like our ears and nose—rather than bone. A handy way to tell the difference is that a whale’s tail moves up and down but a shark’s tail moves from side to side.
In Madagascar’s waters, this difference can have serious repercussions. While whales are strictly protected by law, endangered whale sharks are not. The country’s existing marine protected areas only cover a small portion of whale sharks’ habitat and conservationists are calling for formal measures to better preserve this endangered species as well as other sharks and rays.
“Madagascar is an important habitat for these gentle giants so it’s vital whale sharks are granted protections in the same way whales are—for the survival of the species as well as the local communities that rely on marine ecotourism,” Diamant says.
Whales—and sharks—are vital to a healthy marine ecosystem. Whales distribute important nutrients throughout the ocean while sharks, as top predators, keep prey species in check to ensure the ecosystem remains balanced. With so much yet to learn about the ocean, it’s vital to dispel misconceptions so people around the world understand how to keep the entire ecosystem safe and healthy for future generations.