Whales are warm-blooded animals that must “breach” to the surface to breathe air. Most mammals breathe through their mouths as well as their nostrils, but whales have airways – called breathing holes – that are separate from their mouths.
Unlike our nostrils, breathing holes are on top of whales’ heads. They can breathe while staying mostly submerged, and some even breathe while eating. Whales hold their breath until they decide to expel it, which they do in sudden bursts called “blows.” They’re voluntary breathers, not involuntary breathers like the rest of us. Baleen whales have two blow holes, and toothed whales have one.
Whales also differ from other mammals in that they give birth in water. Calves must be guided to the surface for their first breath of air.
Many baleen whales migrate long distances from feeding areas to breeding grounds. Antarctic humpbacks travel some of the longest distances. They feed in waters off the Western Antarctic Peninsula, and then swim north to a breeding area on the equator near Columbia.
Whales have boneless horizontal tail fins, or rear flippers. The whale propels forward by moving these “flukes” up and down.
To help with deep diving, whales have a high level of myoglobin in their muscles. This red pigment is like hemoglobin in that it stores oxygen in the muscles. The oxygen is replaced when the whale surfaces.
Whales maintain their core body temperatures with the help of a heavy dose of blubber that can comprise up to 30-40% of their total body weight. They also have a specialized heat-exchange system that keeps their vital organs warm in cold water or conversely cools off their surface area when whales overheat.
Bigger whale species collect external parasites such as barnacles, diatoms (algae), and whale lice. These creatures hide in the nooks and crannies of a whale’s skin where they won’t be washed away, feeding on the whale’s shedding skin and sometimes on its flesh wounds. Breaching is thought to help remove these parasites and dead skin.
Breaching might also be associated with taking a look around, avoiding predators or collisions with other whales and boats, or just to say howdy to the neighbors.
[TRIP TRIVIA: Sometimes you’ll hear a whale before you see one. When you hear the explosion of the whale’s blow, look for the spout or spray. Humpbacks generally display their tails when they submerge.]
Whales are experts in underwater communication. Sound is important to whales because it transmits approximately 4-1/2 times faster in water than it does in air. Plus, it’s harder to see under water.
Southern right whales might breach to communicate with each other. Their thumping sounds can be heard more than one km (2/3 ml) away.
Sound is not only used to communicate, but it’s also used for echolocation. Toothed whales use higher frequencies than baleens do. These higher frequencies travel shorter distances than the lower frequencies, which may travel hundreds or thousands of kilometers/miles.
Fin and Blue whales voice low rumblings that are outside of human hearing, and dolphins talk in high whistles and clicks.
Humpbacks are known to “sing” complex songs of interesting snorts, chirps, yips, yaps, and whoos that might last 10 to 15 minutes. It takes a student of music theory to decipher the different phrases and themes that compose these haunting whale tunes.
But for a humpback it’s a simple matter of love. Only the male humpbacks sing, and they most likely croon to attract females. The moral to the story is: If you want a mate, make sure you’re singing from the right songbook… and please try to stay on pitch for the sake of your fellow humpbacks.