<p>A southern right whale encounters a diver on the sandy sea bottom off the Auckland Islands, New Zealand. Adults can reach lengths of 55 feet and weigh up to 60 tons.</p>

A southern right whale encounters a diver on the sandy sea bottom off the Auckland Islands, New Zealand. Adults can reach lengths of 55 feet and weigh up to 60 tons.

Photograph by Brian Skerry, Nat Geo Image Collection

14 jaw-dropping pictures of whales

From a killer whale on the hunt to narwhals touching tusks, we look at some of the most stunning photographs of marine giants.

In the oceans' inky depths lurk some of the largest animals on Earth. More than 40 species of whale spend their lives beneath the waves, surfacing only to breathe.

These marine behemoths are famous for epic migrations between warm waters (for breeding) and colder, nutrient-rich waters (for feeding).

The gray whale, for instance, swims more than 10,000 miles each year between Mexico’s Baja peninsula and Alaska's Aleutian Islands—one of the longest known migratory routes of any mammal. (Related: "The Rare Beauty of Dozens of Migrating Humpback Whales.")

Yet centuries of intensive hunting have driven some whale species close to extinction, including the North Atlantic right whale. Once abundant in the waters between North America and Europe, fewer than 500 of this endangered species remain.

Conservation efforts have allowed other species to rebound—recent swarms of humpback whales may be a sign of such successes—but the animals are still at risk due to shipping activities, overfishing, and climate change.

Here are 14 stunning photographs of whales trying to survive in an often inhospitable world.

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