Whales | Polar Unbound

Whales

Blue Whale

BLUE WHALE

Before the whaling industry of the 19th and 20th centuries hunted them to near extinction, blue whales were common in almost all the world’s oceans. The largest populations were found in Antarctica’s waters, where it is estimated that over a quarter of a million of these incomprehensibly large mammals lived. A 2002 report estimated that there are now between 5,000 and 12,000 blue whales left in the world—and around 2,000 inhabit Antarctica.

The blue whale has a long, thin, tapering body that when compared to other whales stockier frames, appears almost stretched. The dorsal fin is small, less than a foot high. Due to their immense size, it is often difficult to weigh them accurately or even comprehend their
vastness. They are thought to weigh between 160,000 and 300,000 pounds, the largest animal ever known to exist. The largest known specimen is thought to have weighed over 400,000 pounds. At birth, calves weigh around 6,000 pounds, about the size of an adult male
hippopotamus. Females are generally longer than males, though males weigh more due to their heavier bones. In their adolescence, calves can grow as much as 200 pounds per day. Due to their immense size, several of their organs are also the largest ever recorded.
For example, the tongue of a blue whale weighs around 6,000 pounds.

Blue whales do not form the large groups seen in other whale species. They most commonly live alone or occasionally with one other partner, though it is not known for how long such relationships last. This relatively solitary existence carries them through their long lives, as scientists estimate that blue whales can live as long as 80 years.

They are also known to sing, though no one completely understands why. Some reasons suspected are individual recognition, contextual information such as feeding, courtship, and alarm, and location of prey.

FUN FACT: Though having a mouth able to hold over 100,000 pounds of food, a blue whale cannot swallow anything wider than a beach ball at one time.

 

Orcas

ORCA/KILLER WHALE 

These extremely popular animals are considered a cosmopolitan species as they can be found throughout the world’s oceans from the Arctic to Antarctica and everywhere in between. Highly social animals, orcas form matrilineal pods, which are considered to be the most stable animal society in existence. Furthermore they have highly localized hunting techniques passed down through generations that are often considered part of an orca culture.

Orcas have very famous, distinctive features and are not usually confused with any other type of marine life. They are the largest members of the dolphin family, weighing in at around 13,000 pounds. Their enormous size and prodigious strength combine to make them
one of the fastest marine animal. 

The most common places to find orcas are off the coast of Norway in the Northeast Atlantic, the Gulf of Alaska, and the Southern Ocean off the coast of Antarctica. About 25,000 are thought to live around Antarctica.

Killer whales are apex predators, meaning they have no natural predators. Due to their tendency to live and hunt in packs, they are sometimes referred to as the wolves of the sea. Interestingly, different populations of orcas often have completely different diets, leading to speculation that what we refer to as an orca might actually be two or more closely related species. Mostly killer whales eat fish. However, a population of killer whale that mostly preys upon mammals, sea birds, or other whales might not even recognize fish as food.

 

Humpback Whale

HUMPBACK WHALE 

There’s lots about the humpback whale that make it one of the better known large whales. They often hang out in large groups near coasts, and as slow swimmers who enjoy breaching, slapping their flippers and lob-tailing they are a traveler favorite. They are also known for their captivating songs—which only the male humpbacks “sing.” The humpback whale song is known as the most complex animal song of all. 

Humpback whales are the most common baleen whale to be found off the coasts of the Antarctic Peninsula, where they spend the summers chowing down on krill. Climate change has somewhat altered the humpback’s migration patterns, however, as recent studies show that they are sticking around in Antarctica for a longer time before heading to northern waters. 

FUN FACT: Humpback whales in the Arabian Sea are the only humpbacks who don’t migrate to chilly polar waters for feeding season. 

 

Fin Whale

FIN WHALE 

Fin whales, another of the baleen whale family, are almost as big as the immense blue whale and can be found feeding in the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans during the spring and summer. Fin whales prefer open ocean, so they avoid waters close to ice pack. 

Though large, fin whales are also incredibly speedy with their slender, streamlined bodies. They are able to cruise at 37kmh and reach up to 47kmh when sprinting. 

FUN FACT: Called the greyhound of the seas, fin whales are the fastest of the large whales. 

Sperm Whale

SPERM WHALE 

You’ll only find male sperm whales in Antarctic waters, as females and the calves stay up north where waters are warmer. Sperm whales got their name for the spermaceti organ in their characteristic bulbous heads. And out of these massive heads come the most distinctive “blow” of any whale, as it shoots forwards and to the left for about 5m. 

Sperm whales are also the largest toothed carnivores in the world. Though other baleen whales are bigger—and considered carnivores—they filter their food in mass quantities rather than having teeth which they use to hunt down their prey. Though sperm whales only have teeth in their lower jaw, the large, conical teeth are incredibly strong and designed for grasping and then incapacitating individual prey. Even orcas, who occasionally hunt down even the massive blue whale, don’t attempt to take on the sperm whale. Sperm whales themselves often dive incredibly deep to hunt down squid. This is no easy feat, and sperm whales dive deeper and go longer without air than any other animal. 

FUN FACT: Recently, scientists have suggested that their large spermaceti organ allows male sperm whales to use their heads as “battering rams” when they swim directly at one another, banging heads, when competing for females. 

Minke Whale

MINKE WHALE 

Of minke whales, it’s only the subspecies of the southern minke (pronounced mink-ey) whale, or Antarctic minke whale, who is found within the the Antarctic waters. Minkes are the smallest of the baleen whales, as well as the most common in the Antarctic and well-adapted to the icy waters. 

During the warmer summer months, minkes favor the open pack ice, where plenty of open water can be found between ice. In the winter, when ice is heavier, minke whales breathe by finding narrow cracks in the ice, where they are able to vertically stick their pointy heads out of the cracks. Of course, scientists aren’t quite sure yet how the minke whales are able to discover and navigate their way to these ice cracks before running out of breath. 

southern right whale

RIGHT WHALE 

The rarest of all large whales, right whales can be recognized by their bulbous heads that lend to their distinctly un-streamlined bodies. Their immense heads, besides holding large amounts of baleen teeth, also hold large stretches of callosities  where whale lace, barnacles and parasitic worms reside—giving them a whitish appearance. 

Southern right whales were prime targets for whalers; slow swimming—and thus easy to catch—found close to shore, usually float when dead, and have large amounts of baleen, blubber and oil. The whaling days largely decimated right whale populations, and while they have experienced shown some population growth, they are still considered vulnerable. 

FUN FACT: Early whalers went literal and named these whales because they were the “right” whales to kill. 

Sei Whale

SEI WHALE 

Sei (pronounced “say”) whales are rather elusive. Not only do they rarely come close to land or hang out in large groups, but they are possibly the fastest of all whales or dolphins—able to hit 50kmh when sprinting. 

Sei whales make it to both hemispheres, migrating to find the best food, and are relatively uncommon in Antarctica. As they favor deeper offshore, temperate waters, they don’t migrate as far south into the chilly polar waters as other rorqual whales and rarely enter icy waters.