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November 30, 2016

10 Things You Didn't Know About Whales

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Whale Flickr-Guarda La`
I have always been fascinated by whales and indeed they are one of the reasons my family and I went to the seaside this month (we weren't lucky, by the way, although we did get a glimpse of dolphins). But despite my purported love for them, I didn't even know how astonishing these creatures are. I'm again referencing Diane Ackerman's amazing collection of essays 'The Moon by Whale Light...' (which has been one of my favourite reads so far this year) in order to support my astonishment and awe of these creatures and the natural world that allows us to share this earth with us.

I'll start off with this thought-provoking quote:
We ache to know of other forms of equally intelligent life in the universe and yet here are creatures as unknown as extraterrestrials right among us, moving in a slow-motion ballet under the ocean. [112]
Ackerman's essays are filled with sentiments such as these bemoaning humankind's skewed value systems.

These are the 10 most interesting facts about whales that I uncovered in her essay.

1. Whales have the largest brains on Earth. While this might not come as much of a surprise, considering how large some of them become, it is not a matter of matching size: their brains are as complex as ours, probably even more so.


2. There are two types of whales. Toothed whales use echolocation and have a single blowhole. Dolphins, which are cetaceans just like all whales, fall into this category along with orcas and porpoises. Baleen whales are all the larger whales that eat by filtering their food through baleen plates. These whales have two blowholes, just like our nostrils.

3. Anyone can guess why the Right Whale was so named: it was literally the 'right' one to kill, as its body did not sink and it was also relatively docile. If sanctions had not been placed on whaling, this would have been the only animal found all over the world to have been extincted by humankind.

Blue Whale
4. When a Blue Whale is vertical to the ocean floor, its body experiences three different atmospheres.

5. A whale's body, because of its size, generates so much heat that when dead, and even if in icy water, the flesh burns and chars the bones. Whales' bodies thus have to be harvested of all important parts before it becomes a 'burnt whale'.

6. When a whale sings, no air is released from its lungs or anywhere else.

7. Whales sometimes balance their tails out of the water for fun.

8. Whales are made of 97% water and thus babies will hear their mothers perfectly for the entire year of their gestation.

9. At the time of the book's publication, the actual act of copulation between humpback whales had never been seen or filmed. However, the first photograph of these whales mating was taken in 2010 and only released in 2012 after a study was being completed.

10. Humpback whales, known for their hauntingly beautiful underwater songs, use rhyme to remember long songs, which are copied and adapted amongst the males of the species, a complex idea that not simply any organism could understand.

If you'd like to try spot some whales this year, check out this list of spots where you can spot whales in South Africa before the end of December.

{Image credits: 
Lead: Flickr/Guarda La` [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
Species branching: By Jérôme Spitz , Andrew W. Trites, Vanessa Becquet, Anik Brind'Amour, Yves Cherel, Robert Galois, Vincent Ridoux [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Blue Whale: By NOAA Photo Library - anim1754, Public Domain, Link}

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