Gray whales like this one migrate up to 10,000 miles a year, from the warm waters of Baja California to their feeding grounds in the Bering Sea.
Gray whales like this one migrate up to 10,000 miles a year, from the warm waters of Baja California to their feeding grounds in the Bering Sea.
Photograph by Thomas P. Peschak, Nat Geo Image Collection

Whales

Common Name:
Whales
Scientific Name:
Cetacea
Diet:
Carnivore
Average Life Span:
unknown
Size:
9 feet to 98 feet long
Weight:
500 pounds to 200 tons
Current Population Trend:
Unknown

Whales are the largest animals on Earth and they live in every ocean. The massive mammals range from the 600-pound dwarf sperm whale to the colossal blue whale, which can weigh more than 200 tons and stretch up to 100 feet long—almost as long as a professional basketball court.

Whales are warm-blooded creatures that nurse their young.

Types of whales

There are two types of whales: toothed and baleen. Toothed whales, as the name suggests, have teeth, which are used to hunt and eat squid, fish, and seals. Toothed whales include sperm whales, as well as dolphins, porpoises, and orcas, among others. The narwhal’s “horn” is actually one long tooth protruding through its lip.

Baleen whales are larger than toothed whales, for the most part. They include blue whales, humpbacks, right whales, bowhead whales, and others. They feed by straining tiny shrimp-like creatures called krill through the fringed plates of long, fingernail-like material called baleen attached to their upper jaws.

Whale calls

Whales, particularly humpbacks, produce otherworldly vocalizations that can be heard for miles underwater. The songs, complex combinations of moans, howls, and cries that can continue for hours, are produced when whales push air around in their heads, then amplify the sounds through a blob of fat that perches on the top jaw. It’s thought that whales communicate through the calls, which researchers believe can be heard for thousands of miles.

Threats

Though the stark population declines from hunting have largely stopped, several whale species are threatened or endangered—including the blue whale, right whale, and fin whale—by a combination of fishing net entanglements and being struck by ships.

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