Been having a whale of a time? Or like us, been wondering where on earth that phrase might have come from? Our recent search on a popular search engine suggests that the phrase came from whalers who many years ago had a whale of a time out whaling. Wonder what the whales would have to say about that?
Whales and whaling are big issues all around the world. The whales themselves are a source of fascination for many people.
They inhabit the deepest of our oceans, they can count the largest animal on earth – the blue whale – among them, and it is their size and their blubber that have made them an easy and attractive target for hunting.
And yet much of their behaviour remains a mystery to us.
Firstly, let’s have a look at the whales. Whales fall into the order Cetacean, meaning ‘large sea animal’ or ‘any huge fish or sea monster’. They share this order with their close relatives, dolphins and porpoises. Unlike their close relatives however, whales grow to gargantuan sizes.
The blue whale is the largest animal that has ever lived (although recently discovered fossils are throwing up a few other competitors in this category), weighing as much as 180 tons and growing up to 33 metres long! That’s about the height of a 9-storey building!
Visit National Geographic here for an interactive tool that helps you understand just how big the blue whale gets:
The sheer size of the whales belies their preference for miniscule food types. Blue whales reach their mind-boggling dimensions on a diet composed nearly exclusively of tiny shrimplike animals called krill, sieving their microscopic meals through baleen plates. Baleen whales need a large amount of quality nutrition in order to maintain their blubber beneath their skin so that they can endure icy waters and long migrations, and at certain times of the year a single adult blue whale consumes about 3.6 tons of krill a day.
Not all whales are krill eaters: the toothed whales have – as their name implies – a set of teeth designed to grasp and crush their food. These whales will feed on fish, squid and marine mammals. Not all species are believed to use their teeth for feeding. For instance, it is thought that the Sperm Whale most probably uses its teeth for aggression and showmanship.
The presence or absence of teeth isn’t the only thing that distinguished the baleen whales from the toothed whales: baleen whales have two blowholes while toothed whales only have one!
We never knew that the blowholes aren’t only useful for breathing and getting rid of whale boogers: air sacs just below the blowhole allow whales to produce sounds for communication and (for those species capable of it) echolocation. These air sacs are filled with air, which is then released again to produce sound in a similar fashion to releasing air from a balloon.
The difference between us releasing air from a balloon and a whale releasing air from their air sacs is that the noises they can make are beautiful, lyrical and loud. As the whale is so large and powerful, they make very loud sounds that can be heard for many kilometres. They have been known to generate about 20,000 acoustic watts of sound at 163 decibels! Louder than a rock concert.
The main reason for these noises is communication. Whales (and other cetaceans like dolphins and porpoises) are generally chatty and social creatures, and have a range of noises that they can make, including low frequency moans, grunts and thumps, as well as high frequency chirps and whistles.
Whales also communicate by means of gestures and body language such as breaching and slapping their tails. Whale noises such as forceful spouts may signal aggravation, and the slapping of pectoral flippers indicates arousal, excitement or aggression. The picture below shows the many moves of the whale (click to enlarge).