Whaling is one of the biggest threats to whales. By the middle of the 20th century, whaling had left many populations severely depleted. The International Whaling Commission introduced a moratorium which continues to this day. However, there are still some exceptions to this moratorium. This allows countries like Norway, Iceland and Japan and the aboriginal communities of Siberia, Alaska and northern Canada to continue their annual whale hunts.
In addition, several species of small whales are caught as bycatch in fisheries for other species. Exposure to contaminants and pollution also threaten whales. Scientists also believe that underwater sonar testing by the navies of various countries leads to whale beachings. Mass whale beachings occur in many species, mostly beaked whales that use echolocation systems for deep diving. Whales are also threatened by climate change because higher water temperatures in the Antarctic Ocean are reducing populations of krill, a small-shrimp-like crustacean that is the main food source for some whale species.
International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, Washigton, December 2, 1946. Various species of whales are listed under the *Endangered Species Act as either “threatened” or “endangered”. All whales are protected under the **Marine Mammal Protection Act.
* The Endangered Species Act requires the US federal government to identify species threatened with extinction, identify habitat they need to survive, and help protect both. In doing so, the Act works to ensure the basic health of our natural ecosystems and protect the legacy of conservation we leave to our children and grandchildren.
** The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits, with certain exceptions, the take of marine mammals in U.S. waters and by U.S. citizens on the high seas, and the importation of marine mammals and marine mammal products into the U.S.
How You Can Help
- Help whales and other wildlife by adopting a beluga whale at our Wildlife Adoption Center.
- Take Action for Wildlife at our Wildlife Action Center.
Visit Defenders' Imperiled Species: Cook Inlet Beluga Whale and North Atlantic Right Whale pages for more information about what Defenders is doing to help these whales.
North Atlantic Right Whale Fact Sheet
Beluga Whale Fact Sheet
World Conservation Union
North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission
North Pacific Marine Science Organization
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species
NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service
Whales belong to the order cetacea, which includes whales, dolphins and porpoises. Whales are divided into two suborders: baleen and toothed whales. Baleen whales have a comb-like fringe, called a baleen, on the upper jaw, which is used to filter plankton, as well as small fish and crustaceans. They are the largest species of whale. Toothed whales have teeth and prey on fish, squid, other whales and marine mammals. They sense their surrounding environment through echolocation.
Like all mammals, whales breathe air into lungs, are warm-blooded, feed their young milk and have some (although very little) hair. Their bodies resemble the streamlined form of a fish, while the forelimbs or flippers are paddle-shaped. The tail fins, or flukes, enable whales to propel themselves through the water. Most species of whale have a fin on their backs known as a dorsal fin.
Beneath the skin lies a layer of fat called blubber. It serves as an energy reservoir and also as insulation. Whales breathe through blowholes, located on the top of the head so the animal can remain submerged. Baleen whales have two blowholes,while toothed whales have one.
Length Varies – up to 110ft long
Weight Varies – up to 150 tons
Lifespan Generally 20-40 years, but can live up to 80 years; varies with each species.
Ranges from microscopic plankton to large marine mammals.Population
Varies with each species.Range
Varies with each species.Behavior
Many whales, especially baleen whales, tend to migrate long distances from their cold-water feeding grounds to warm-water breeding grounds each year. They travel alone or in groups, or pods, on their annual migrations. Toothed whales often hunt in groups, migrate together and share young-rearing duties.
Most whales are quite active in the water. They jump high, or breach, out of the water and land back in the water. They also thrust their tails out of the water and slap the water’s surface, which is believed to be a warning of danger nearby. Whales also communicate with each other using lyrical sounds. These sounds are extremely loud depending on the species and can be heard for many miles.
Because of their environment (and unlike many animals) and because they need to breathe air by coming to the water’s surface, whales are conscious breathers, meaning they decide when to breathe. All mammals sleep, including whales, but they cannot afford to fall into an unconscious state for too long, since they need to be conscious to break the surface in order to breathe
Mating Season Varies depending on the species
Gestation 9-15 months, depending on the species
Number of offspring 1 calf
Nursing time is long (more than one year for many species), which is associated with a strong bond between mother and young. This strategy of reproduction spawns few offspring, but provides each with a high probability of survival in the wild.
According to Ask.com:
How many whales are there? Depends on what you mean by "whale".
Whale can mean two things: the big animal, or "cetacean", which is the group that includes all the whales, dophins and porpoises.
There are around 80 different kinds of cetaceans, but only about 13 or 14 of these are big whales.
Pygmy right whale
*Smallest is the Pygmy right whale (less than 30 feet)
*Biggest is the Blue whale (more than 100 feet and around 150-200 tons in the biggest cases).
The blue whale is the largest animal that has ever lived on earth. It can weigh up to 136,400 kg (300,000 lb) and grow as long as 34 m (110'). It has a slim outline, especially in the winter, although it fattens in the summer. The tiny dorsal fin is set well to the rear of the body. 55 - 68 flexible throat grooves run along half the body length. Its coloration is mainly pale blue-gray.
...commonly called unicorn whales because of their tusklike horn...