As our largest marine mammals, whales are one of the most fascinating animals on the planet. They are also among the most studied, and research on the world's whale species is now assisting scientists to learn more about things like global warming, marine wildlife migration patterns, oceanography and even atmospheric science. |
But it's not only scientists that are enamoured with these aquatic giants. Whale watching holidays to places as diverse as Sri Lanka, Norway and the Azores are popular with nature lovers looking for a close encounter, while wildlife documentaries like Sir David Attenborough's stunning Blue Planet 2 bring the wonders of ocean's cetacean species to vivid life in the comfort of our own homes.
Teeth and Baleen
There are two suborders of whales: toothed and baleen. The baleen species are generally larger than their toothed counterparts, and instead of teeth they have multiple plates hanging from their upper jaw, consisting of a flexible apparatus called baleen. Baleen allows the animal to filter feed, which they do by taking in vast quantities of water through their mouths then expelling it. Plankton and other small organisms are trapped behind the baleen and then ingested.
The toothed species are predatory and, while they use their teeth to capture and kill their prey (which includes sea lions, seal, fish and, sometimes, other whales), they swallow it whole.
While the structure of a whale is similar to a fish and they spend around 90% of their time underwater, because they are mammals they require oxygen to survive. They use their blowholes to take air into their lungs and, unlike fish and other marine animals that have gills to extract oxygen from the water, they must come to the surface of the water to breathe. Baleen species have two blowholes located next to each other, while toothed species have just one.
Fins, Flukes and Flippers
Fins, flukes (the tail) and flippers all serve a different purpose. The dorsal fin is used for stabilisation, the flippers are used to navigate and perform acrobatic displays, and the fluke is used to propel them through the water. Not all species have a dorsal fin, but for those that do there is a huge variation in size and shape. The flippers also vary in size between the species and are vital in controlling how deep they dive.
Eyes and Ears
The eyes and ears are uniquely adapted to life beneath the surface of the ocean. The eyes are very small and, while relied on lessthan other senses, they are certainly capable of sight, with a depth of vision up to about 35 feet. They have glands that secrete an oil to flush away salt and ocean debris.
The ears are one of their most important senses and are vital to communication. They vary slightly between the baleen and toothed species, with the former's including a waxy plug to protect the ear canal but also reducing aural capacity. Toothed species do not have the plug and their ear bones are encased in foam around the skull, which affords improved hearing to aid in hunting.
As warm-blooded mammals, all species have a thick, insulating layer of blubber beneath their top layer of skin. Not only does the blubber maintain their body heat and protect their organs from the extreme cold of their oceanic habitat, it also acts as a defence against predators.
Come Face to Face with Nature
Responsible, well-organised whale watching holidays are the best way to come face to face with these majestic marine creatures. Led by experienced naturalists, the best whale watching holidays take participants to wildlife hotspots in some of the most cetacean-rich oceans on the planet.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in whale watching. As a passionate lover ofmarine wildlife, Marissa chooses the expert-led whale watching holidaysorganised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.
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