Creature Feature: Blue Whale

Blue whales on the surface. California, Gulf of the Farallones NMS   Photographer: Dan Shapiro. NOAA photo library

Blue whales on the surface. California, Gulf of the Farallones NMS
Photographer: Dan Shapiro. NOAA photo library

Imagine, if you can, swimming in the middle of the ocean side by side with… a Boeing 737 airplane.  You might be thinking, Ok… but planes don’t swim.  You’d be absolutely right!  However, it is possible to swim with creatures that can reach roughly the same size as that humongous airplane.  MSI’s Program Scheduler Jenn shared with us that her favorite ocean creature is the blue whale.  Jenn told us that the blue whale, or Balaenoptera musculus, is the largest animal that has ever existed! They can be 110 ft but most grow to about 90ft. This magnificent mammal is part of the suborder of cetaceans called baleen whales. Baleen are keratinous substance (finger nail-like material) found in two rows of plates which hang down from the upper jaw of whale. This amazing filtration system allows the massive beings to feed on organisms around 1250 times smaller than themselves, like krill. When the whale opens its mouth, it will take in the water and pushes the water out through the baleen plates using its car-size tongue.

Throughout history these beautiful beasts have suffered a large depletion in their population. In the 1800s and early 1900s, whales were hunted primarily for whale oil.  Commercial hunting nearly caused the blue whale to become extinct and during this time, almost 360,000 whales were killed.  In 1970, the blue whale was classified as endangered in the U.S. Endangered Species Conservation Act. Even though the population has seen a steady increase, they have not fully recovered.

Though blue whales are now federally protected from commercial hunting, they still face dangers in the water, particularly from human boats and ships.  Each year whales of many different species are injured or even killed when large vessel hit them.  Between 1988 and 2012, there were 100 documented large whale ship strikes just along the California coast.  These ship strikes tend to occur most often in areas of abundant marine traffic.  Studies thus far have been inconclusive as to what factors contribute to collisions or why blue whales appear to be more susceptible than other whales.  With the state of blue whale population being what it is, it is important for researchers to continue studying factors affecting whale mortality.

There are some steps all boaters can make to help the reduction of these collisions. Slow down in cetacean population-dense zones and slow down when whales are visible. Happy viewing!

Find this article and more in our newest edition of Baylines, Marine Science Institutes quarterly newsletter!



Edited by K.C. O’Shea ‘

Photography: NOAA Photo Library



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