55 million years ago, small hoofed carnivores started to move from the land back into the sea. Legs became fins and tails, and bodies became longer and more streamlined. DNA evidence now shows us that whales have nothing to do with other waterborne meat-eaters like seals and walruses; their closest living relative is the vegetarian hippo, with deer, camels and pigs as very distant cousins.
The blue whale is the largest animal that has ever lived - 30 times heavier than an African elephant, the next largest mammal. The biggest dinosaur weighed less than half as much: some female blue whales lose that 50 tons when feeding their young. A newborn blue whale is the same weight as a female elephant: it puts on 14 stone a day, 8 lbs an hour. When fully grown, it’s heart is the same size as a family car, processing 2,000 gallons of blood, pumping 60 gallons a beat, with an aorta large enough for a five year old child to swim through.
Whales grew large because the buoyancy of water meant they could – nothing so heavy could survive on land, the energy needed to move and feed would be too great. But for a warm-blooded animal living in the sea is problematic: it’s a desert – there’s nothing to drink. And it’s cold: heat travels 24 times faster in water. Being large helps, as it reduces the surface-to-weight ratio, but the real star of whale survival is blubber. It not only acts as an insulating overcoat and lifejacket (it’s less dense than sea water); it is also stores the water extracted from food and provides a handy on-board supply of nutrients when food is scarce.
The whale is endangered, while the ant continues to do just fine.
Since 1992, hydrophones (microphones on the seabed) have tracked a mystery whale in the northeast Pacific singing in a far higher register than normal (52 Hertz). It’s thought to be a blue whale or a fin whale but no one’s ever seen it. As no whale has ever replied, it’s said to be the loneliest whale in the world. Its strange song and the lack of response may be because it’s a hybrid of two species. Or it could be deaf.
Whale song is the loudest noise made by any single animal, and the most complex call in the Animal Kingdom. Some calls are so low in frequency they can be felt thousands of miles away. (Sound travels four times faster through water than through air.) Whales sing in different dialects depending on where they’re from, sing different songs in different places at different times of the year and never repeat the same song twice. Beluga whales are known as ‘sea canaries’ because of the wide range of whistles, clicks and pulses they produce.
Consider the whale: It never gets into trouble until it comes up and starts spouting.
All whales are born backwards so they don't drown while they're coming out.
Humpback whales can die from infestations of pubic lice. The lice are passed on during sexual contact and hide alongside barnacles that grow around the whale's genital slit. Normally the humpbacks can remove the lice by jumping out of the water and splashing down, but if they are incapacitated in some way, the lice can take over the whale's whole body. If this happens, it's only a matter of time before he's orca-lunch.
Humpback whales migrate the longest distance of any mammal. Researchers tracked whales 5,100 miles from Costa Rica to Antarctica; they can recognise the whales by their flukes – their tail fins – which have a unique pattern like human fingerprints. They hunt by a technique known as bubble net feeding: a group of whales swims in a shrinking circle blowing bubbles below a school of prey. The shoal is confined in an ever-smaller cylinder. The whales then suddenly swim upward through the 'net', mouths agape, swallowing thousands of fish in one gulp.
Many animals can catch influenza and some have the potential to spread it to humans. As well as birds and swine, horses, dogs and cats can also conceivably transmit the virus to humans; so can marine mammals such as seals and whales. Scientists worry about 'flu crossing species because a virus can emerge which has a new genetic code. Our immune system can struggle to overcome the new version.
Swine 'flu can be problematic because pig cells contain receptors for both bird and human flu: the viruses can mix in the animal. Whales also have receptors for bird flu and sea mammals can certainly transmit diseases to humans; in 1981 there was a case of a scientist catching conjunctivitis from a seal with 'flu. The H1N3 strain has been found in sick whales and is one that can be caught by humans. There is no evidence that whale 'flu has ever reached the stage where it can be transmitted from human to human.
Whales get 'flu from bird poo, either directly through the seawater, or from zooplankton that eat the guano and are subsequently eaten by whales. Sick whales have peeling skin, their lungs haemorrhage and their liver shrinks. Some beachings may be caused by influenza-sick whales. The disease could be passed on through human contact at such beachings or from mucus in the plume of gas sent up from a whale's blowhole (whales do not sneeze, their nasal passages are configured to prevent irritants from entering). If the jet smells like severely rotten fish then there's a good chance it has "whale 'flu."
The Latin name for the hump-backed whale is Megaptera novaeangliae means 'big-winged New Englander'
The world’s largest love handles are found on beluga whales. They don't have dorsal fins: to stabilise themselves when swimming they use midriff fat, which they can control with special muscles that move it up and down.
Whale fat is known as blubber (from a 14th century word blober, meaning ‘bubble’ and originally referring to any foamy or gelatinous sea substance such as jellyfish). As well as keeping a whale warm, it conserves nutrients much like a camel’s hump, which means that whales can go long periods without eating. The Inuit word for blubber as food is ‘muktuk’: for them, it was the most common source of vitamin C.
In humans, love handles can be a good indicator of poor health. People with more belly fat (rather than on their bum or legs) are more likely to also have ‘visceral fat’ that surrounds body organs. People who are obese are more likely to die early; but people with fat around their waists die earlier still.
Whales' health is measured by flying a remote controlled toy helicopter through a whale's snout and collecting its snot.
Whales are divided into ‘toothed whales’ and ‘baleen whales’. Instead of teeth, baleen whales have a thick curtain of bristles hanging from plates in their upper jaw. These are made of keratin, like human hair and fingernails.
The word baleen is from Latin ballaena, ‘whale’. This, in turn derives from the Greek phallaina, which is related to phallos (‘swollen penis’), presumably because of the whale’s shape. Baleen whales include the blue, grey, bowhead, right, minke and humpback whales. Toothed whales include sperm whales, orcas, dolphins and porpoises.
Baleen whales bear down like bulldozers on huge shoals of tiny sea creatures such as krill or plankton, scooping them and vast amounts of water into their open mouths. Once inside, along with any unfortunate sea birds, they lower their jaw like a portcullis and use their tongue as a ram, forcing water out of their mouths through the baleen bristles. These act as a sieve. The shoals are trapped inside and then swallowed.
Like hair and fingernails, baleen grows continuously. It is strong, light, flexible and hardwearing - the 19th century equivalent of plastic or fibreglass. As a result, it found many uses – corsets being just one of them.
A Mr JA Sevey, trading out of Boston, offered 54 different ‘whalebone’ products including: whips; parasols and umbrellas; fishing rods; canes; hats; divining rods; riding crops; ferrules; brushes; mattress stuffing; back supporters; suspenders; billiard cushion springs; pen holders; shoehorns; tongue-scrapers and policemen’s clubs.
Actual whalebone was once a cheap substitute for ivory. Sailors on
whaling ships often passed the time whittling whale bones and engraving them – a process known as scrimshaw – to make useful or decorative objects for wives and children at home: rolling pins, clothes pegs, combs, cutlery, toys, even an entire writing desk.
Sperm whales sleep upright.
Size does matter, the longer the narwhal’s tusk, the bigger his testicles.
There are whales alive today that were born before Moby Dick was written.
In Australia in the late 1800s, sitting inside a whale carcass was thought to be a cure for rheumatism.
Herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale!