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9 surprising facts about whales and why they are so important

9 surprising facts about whales and why they are so important
Source: Unsplash/Waldemar Brandt

Whales aren’t just awesome—and whales are literally awesome—they play a vital role in the bigger picture and have a huge impact on the environment and ecosystem.

Whales are key contributors to ecosystem wellbeing

Whales play a significant role in the health of our environment and understanding of marine mammals, say WhaleFacts.org. Furthermore, they support growing economies that rely on whale watching and spectator activities by bringing in capital through tourism. 

Although whales are well received and loved today, in the past, whales played an important (albeit sad and unfortunate) role in the global economic system. Whale parts and oil were sold and used for many different things, including soap, margarine, corset material, and transmission oil additives.

During the whaling era, many species were slaughtered, causing many of them to become endangered and contributing to all sorts of environmental changes that have affected the earth’s ecosystem, from increased levels of carbon dioxide to global warming (which is affecting our polar ice caps) and changes in the feeding habits of many aquatic lifeforms due to a destabilised food chain.

Today, however, commercial whaling activities are illegal, and those caught hunting whales may face steep fines and jail time. While there are still groups that continue to hunt these marine mammals, the number of participating commercial whalers is continuing to decline. The prohibition of commercial whaling has allowed certain species to begin to repopulate their numbers and grow.

Here are 9 facts—some of the surprising—about how awesome whales are, and the significant role they play in our planet’s ecosystem.

Sources: WhaleFacts.org & AwesomeOcean.com

Most experts agree that the blue whale is the largest animal that has ever lived on Earth… they even say its the loudest. The dwarf sperm whale is only 8 feet long and is the smallest whale. The average whale can be up to 105 feet long.
1. Whales are the largest animals in the world! Most experts agree that the blue whale is the largest animal that has ever lived on Earth… they even say its the loudest. The dwarf sperm whale is only 8 feet long and is the smallest whale. The average whale can be up to 105 feet long. Source: Unsplash/Max Lissenden
For being such huge animals, whales go about half of the year eating nothing at all. During their time in the nutrient-rich cold water near the poles they feast, but once they migrate closer to the equator for mating they don’t eat at all. The reason? The gorgeous, clear water around the middle of the world actually lacks nutrients.
2. Despite their massive size, whales don’t need to eat every day. For being such huge animals, whales go about half of the year eating nothing at all. During their time in the nutrient-rich cold water near the poles they feast, but once they migrate closer to the equator for mating they don’t eat at all. The reason? The gorgeous, clear water around the middle of the world actually lacks nutrients. Source: Unsplash/George Karelitsky
Their large brains indicate a level of intelligence uncommon within most of the animal kingdom. Alongside being smart whales have been shown to have the same neurons that allow humans to feel complex emotions. In addition to forming highly developed relationships and societies with one another, whales also display a high level of intelligence and self-recognition (a characteristic found in only a few animal species). This level of intelligence and social awareness is what allows humpback whales to coordinate an elaborate feeding method.
3. Not only are whales highly intelligent, they are emotional creatures as well.  Whale babies are born with exceptionally large heads that come with big, complex brains. Their large brains indicate a level of intelligence uncommon within most of the animal kingdom. Alongside being smart whales have been shown to have the same neurons that allow humans to feel complex emotions. In addition to forming highly developed relationships and societies with one another, whales also display a high level of intelligence and self-recognition (a characteristic found in only a few animal species). This level of intelligence and social awareness is what allows humpback whales to coordinate an elaborate feeding method. Source: Unsplash/Swanson Chan
Cetacea, the generic term for whales, dolphins and porpoises, comes from the Greek word keto. In Greek Mythology, Keto was the goddess of sea monsters and when the Greeks saw the cresting backs of a group of whales they believed them to be all part of one giant sea serpent.
4. The Ancient Greeks believed whales were sea monsters. Cetacea, the generic term for whales, dolphins and porpoises, comes from the Greek word keto. In Greek Mythology, Keto was the goddess of sea monsters and when the Greeks saw the cresting backs of a group of whales they believed them to be all part of one giant sea serpent. Source: Unsplash/Vivek Kumar
So how do whales rest? Well, they “sleep” by resting one half of their brain at a time while the other half of the brain stays awake to maintain control of the whales’ blowhole and stays alert to any obstacles and danger in its environment. It also signals when to rise to the surface for a fresh breath of air. After approximately two hours, the animal will reverse this process, resting the active side of the brain and awaking the rested half. This pattern is often called cat-napping.
5. When asleep, whales rest half of their brains. Since whales cannot breathe underwater this means they need to be awake all the time in order to come up to breathe when they need to. So how do whales rest? Well, they “sleep” by resting one half of their brain at a time while the other half of the brain stays awake to maintain control of the whales’ blowhole and stays alert to any obstacles and danger in its environment. It also signals when to rise to the surface for a fresh breath of air. After approximately two hours, the animal will reverse this process, resting the active side of the brain and awaking the rested half. This pattern is often called cat-napping. Source: Unsplash/Jason Speck
As more whales are killed, the ocean’s food distribution becomes destabilised and causes changes in the food supply of many other kinds of marine life. For example, a blue whale can consume as much as 40 million krill per day, so you can imagine its impact on stabilising the aquatic ecosystem if the blue whale species were to become extinct.
6. Whales play an important role in stabilising the aquatic food chain and reproduction of other species. As more whales are killed, the ocean’s food distribution becomes destabilised and causes changes in the food supply of many other kinds of marine life. For example, a blue whale can consume as much as 40 million krill per day, so you can imagine its impact on stabilising the aquatic ecosystem if the blue whale species were to become extinct. Source: Unsplash/K B
It has also educated us on how human-made sounds may be affecting the echolocation abilities of other marine animals so that we can try to develop ways to better protect them from harmful human-made noise, either by enforcing laws or creating new technology that doesn’t interfere with marine mammal echolocation.
7. Scientific studies of the cetacean species (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) have led to many discoveries and advancements regarding echolocation, aquatic environments, marine life/biology, marine mammal intelligence, and other important oceanic topics It has also educated us on how human-made sounds may be affecting the echolocation abilities of other marine animals so that we can try to develop ways to better protect them from harmful human-made noise, either by enforcing laws or creating new technology that doesn’t interfere with marine mammal echolocation. Source: Unsplash/Joshua Sukoff
Studies have shown that the nutrients in sperm whale poop help stimulate phytoplankton’s growth, which pulls carbon from the atmosphere to provide a cleaner and healthier breathing environment for all animals. Estimates state that as much as 400,000 tonnes of carbon are extracted from the air due to these whales each year!
8. Whale poop plays a large role in stabilising the offset of carbon in the atmosphere, providing a healthier environment for both land and aquatic lifeforms. Studies have shown that the nutrients in sperm whale poop help stimulate phytoplankton’s growth, which pulls carbon from the atmosphere to provide a cleaner and healthier breathing environment for all animals. Estimates state that as much as 400,000 tonnes of carbon are extracted from the air due to these whales each year! Source: Unsplash/Waldemar Brandt
The growing interest in whale watching has become an increasingly important component for economies looking to increase their global presence and attract other countries’ interests.
9. Whale watching and various other spectating activities have brought billions of dollars, helping stimulate economic growth in various cities, states, and countries. The growing interest in whale watching has become an increasingly important component for economies looking to increase their global presence and attract other countries’ interests. Source: Unsplash/Simon Infanger
Marine biologists recently discovered that whales—especially the great whales—play a significant role in capturing carbon from the atmosphere.  Whales accumulate carbon in their bodies during their long lives. When they die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean; each great whale sequesters 33 tons of CO2 on average, taking that carbon out of the atmosphere for centuries. A tree, meanwhile, absorbs only up to 48 pounds of CO2 a year.
The carbon capture potential of whales is truly staggering. Marine biologists recently discovered that whales—especially the great whales—play a significant role in capturing carbon from the atmosphere. Whales accumulate carbon in their bodies during their long lives. When they die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean; each great whale sequesters 33 tons of CO2 on average, taking that carbon out of the atmosphere for centuries. A tree, meanwhile, absorbs only up to 48 pounds of CO2 a year. Source: Unsplash/Jorge Vasconez

How protecting whales could be our best defence against climate change.

A team of economists at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) wanted to convey to the public just how important whales are, so they put it in terms we could all understand: money. New analysis puts a price tag on exactly how much whales are worth to us, and why we should care about the world’s whale population. It was found that whales absorb large amounts of carbon in their bodies. During the lifetime of the average whale, which is 60 years, it will sequester 33 tons of CO2. In comparison, a tree absorbs up to 48 pounds of CO2 each year. To discover how much a whale is worth, click here.

Since the role of whales is irreplaceable in mitigating and building resilience to climate change, their survival should be integrated into the objectives of the 190 countries that in 2015 signed the Paris Agreement for combating climate risk. Pictured: killer whales, also cetaceans, come up for air.
Coordinating the economics of whale protection must rise to the top of the global community’s climate agenda. Since the role of whales is irreplaceable in mitigating and building resilience to climate change, their survival should be integrated into the objectives of the 190 countries that in 2015 signed the Paris Agreement for combating climate risk. Pictured: killer whales, also cetaceans, come up for air. Source: Unsplash/Bryan Goff
Make an Impact

5 ORGANISATIONS YOU CAN SUPPORT TO HELP SAVE AND PROTECT WHALES

If ocean conservation and helping whales is your issue of choice, there are lots of wonderful organisations dedicated to saving the whales that you can support to help make a difference. Check out the following selection of groups that are doing great work for our marine mammal friends, and could use your support.