WATCH: Blue Whales 101

Blue whales are the largest animals to have ever existed. Learn why they're larger than any land animal and why they were hunted for years.
<p>A blue whale's tongue alone can weigh as much as an elephant—its heart as much as an automobile.</p>

A blue whale's tongue alone can weigh as much as an elephant—its heart as much as an automobile.

Photograph by Hiroya Minakuchi, Minden Pictures/Nat Geo Image Collection
Common Name:
Blue Whale
Scientific Name:
Balaenoptera musculus
Type:
Mammals
Diet:
Carnivore
Group Name:
Pod
Average Life Span In The Wild:
80 to 90 years
Size:
82 to 105 feet
Weight:
Up to 200 tons
IUCN Red List Status:
Endangered
Current Population Trend:
Increasing

What is the blue whale?

Blue whales are the largest animals ever known to have lived on Earth. These magnificent marine mammals rule the oceans at up to 100 feet long and upwards of 200 tons. Their tongues alone can weigh as much as an elephant. Their hearts, as much as an automobile.

Diet of krill

Blue whales reach these mind-boggling dimensions on a diet composed nearly exclusively of tiny shrimplike animals called krill. During certain times of the year, a single adult blue whale consumes about 4 tons of krill a day.

Blue whales are baleen whales, which means they have fringed plates of fingernail-like material, called baleen, attached to their upper jaws. The giant animals feed by first gulping an enormous mouthful of water, expanding the pleated skin on their throat and belly to take it in. Then the whale's massive tongue forces the water out through the thin, overlapping baleen plates. Thousands of krill are left behind—and then swallowed.

Coloring and appearance

Blue whales look true blue underwater, but on the surface their coloring is more a mottled blue-gray. Their underbellies take on a yellowish hue from the millions of microorganisms that take up residence in their skin. The blue whale has a broad, flat head and a long, tapered body that ends in wide, triangular flukes.

Vocalization and behavior

Blue whales live in all the world's oceans, except the Arctic, occasionally swimming in small groups but usually alone or in pairs. They often spend summers feeding in polar waters and undertake lengthy migrations towards the Equator as winter arrives.

These graceful swimmers cruise the ocean at more than five miles an hour, but accelerate to more than 20 miles an hour when they are agitated. Blue whales are among the loudest animals on the planet. They emit a series of pulses, groans, and moans, and it’s thought that, in good conditions, blue whales can hear each other up to 1,000 miles away. Scientists think they use these vocalizations not only to communicate, but, along with their excellent hearing, to sonar-navigate the lightless ocean depths.

Blue whale calves

Calves enter the world already ranking among the planet's largest creatures. After about a year inside its mother's womb, a baby blue whale emerges weighing up to 3 tons and stretching to 25 feet. It gorges on nothing but mother's milk and gains about 200 pounds every day for its first year.

Longevity

Blue whales are among Earth's longest-lived animals. Scientists have discovered that by counting the layers of a deceased whale's waxlike earplugs, they can get a close estimate of the animal's age. The oldest blue whale found using this method was determined to be around 110 years old. Average lifespan is estimated at around 80 to 90 years.

Conservation

Aggressive hunting in the 1900s by whalers seeking whale oil drove them to the brink of extinction. Between 1900 and the mid-1960s, some 360,000 blue whales were slaughtered. They finally came under protection with the 1966 International Whaling Commission, but they've managed only a minor recovery since then.

Blue whales have few predators but are known to fall victim to attacks by sharks and killer whales, and many are injured or die each year from impacts with large ships.

This photo was submitted to Your Shot, our photo community on Instagram. Follow us on Instagram at @natgeoyourshot or visit us at natgeo.com/yourshot for the latest submissions and news about the community.
This photo was submitted to Your Shot, our photo community on Instagram. Follow us on Instagram at @natgeoyourshot or visit us at natgeo.com/yourshot for the latest submissions and news about the community.
Photograph by Dilum Alagiyawanna, National Geographic Your Shot

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