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Curious kids


Ask Ali

Ask us your questions about whales and dolphins and find out more about these amazing creatures.

Beluga cartoon © Glen McBeth

Why are beluga whales white?

Belugas live in icy arctic seas and so their white skin is excellent camouflage and helps them hide from their predators  -  polar bears and orcas.

Whale poo illustration © Glen McBeth

What is the whale pump?

Whales regularly swim up-and-down between the ocean depths to feed and the surface to breathe and poo. In doing so, whales help replenish the surface waters with vital nutrients in their poo – we call this the ‘whale pump’.

Nutrients in whale poo are essential for all life in the ocean. They fertilise and stimulate the growth of phytoplankton - very important players in the ocean. Phytoplankton are very small one-cell marine plants. Not only are they the basis of marine food webs, but they also produce oxygen and absorb as much carbon dioxide as all land-based plants together. Healthy amounts of phytoplankton are key to fighting climate change and we can thank whales for providing the nutrients they need to grow.

Every year, through the whale pump, sperm whales in the Southern Ocean help phytoplankton grow and remove 180,000 tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere. That is the same amount of carbon removed by 8 million trees in a year.

Click/tap on image to see full size.

Whale pump graphic

Whale with baby © Glen McBeth

Do baby whales and dolphins stay with their mothers?

Female whales and dolphins are incredible mothers. They protect their precious babies with their lives. They feed their babies with milk and keep them close, teaching them all they need to know to help them survive. Mothers give birth to one baby at a time and have a gap between each one. This means she can make sure her baby gets the best start in life and remains the centre of attention for as long as they need it.

Dolphin midwives © Glen McBeth

Do whales and dolphins have belly buttons?

Just like us, every whale and dolphin has a belly button. It’s really a belly scar and marks the spot where a baby whale’s umbilical chord joined them to their mother inside her womb.

Granny orca © Glen McBeth

How many babies do whales and dolphins have?

A bottlenose dolphin might have her first baby between the age of 5 and 13 years and go on to have a baby every 3 or 4 years. Some of the dolphins we know in the Moray Firth in Scotland have had 5 babies so far but sadly not all of these have survived their first winter.

Orcas will have their first baby when they are 10 to 15 years-old.  A mother will only  go on to have another baby about 5 years later. It is unusual for an orca to have more than 5 babies in her lifetime. 

Humpback whale mothers may have their first baby aged between 5 and 10 years and can go on to have a baby every two or three years. Baby humpbacks stick like glue to their mothers on their first migration to the feeding grounds. They are weaned at around a year old. Salt a humpback we know in New England has had 16 babies so far and we hope her family will keep growing.

Whale with glass of fish © Glen McBeth

Do they drink water?

Whales and dolphins do not drink the seawater they swim in because it is too salty. They get all the water they need from their food.

Orca with beluga © Glen McBeth

Do albino whales and dolphins exist?

All-white whales and dolphins are rare, except belugas, of course, who are naturally white. Rare white Risso’s dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, humpback whales, orcas and sperm whales have been photographed.  Some individuals are famous; an albino orca, named Iceberg lives with his pod near Russia. And Migaloo is an all –white humpback whale who has been seen many times in eastern Australia.

Whale with toothbrush © Glen McBeth

What do sperm whales eat?

Sperm whales are the only very big whales with teeth. They are deep divers and hunt squid including giant squid and colossal squid.

Curious whale © Glen McBeth

What is the Whale Conveyor Belt?

Whales transport and release thousands of tonnes of nutrients across the ocean on their skin and in their poo and pee on their long migrations.  The whales’ vital circulation of nutrients is nicknamed the whale conveyor belt.  Gray whales, Right whales, humpback whales, minke whales, blue whales all undertake very long migrations every year between their warm breeding grounds to their cold water feeding grounds.

Whales transport and release thousands of tonnes of nutrients – including iron and nitrogen, which are vital for species such as phytoplankton, krill and fish to thrive - through their poo and pee.

Click/tap on image to see full size.

Whale conveyor belt illustration

Dolphins © Glen McBeth

What sounds can dolphins make?

There are three types of sounds dolphins make: clicks, burst pulses, and whistles. Clicks sound like the noise you make when you snap your fingers. Burst pulses can sound like a "raspberry"; the noise you make when you press your lips on your arm and blow air. Whistles sound just like you do trying to whistle!

Bottlenose dolphins and beluga whales both use special whistles called signature whistles to recognise one another – these individual whistles are a bit like our names.

What do dolphins eat illustration © Glen McBeth

What do dolphins eat?

A dolphin’s favourite local fish depends on where they live. The Moray Firth bottlenose dolphins love salmon; dolphins elsewhere might prefer mullet, mackerel, catfish or tropical fish. Dolphins living in deeper water enjoy eating squids and octopuses.

Some dolphins will also munch on shrimps and jellyfish - often a dolphin’s diet will change seasonally as different types of prey come and go.

Dolphins use their teeth to grab and hold on to their prey which they swallow whole.

Dolphin vs shark © Glen McBeth

Can dolphins fight sharks?

Large sharks try to hunt dolphins and many dolphins have bite scars to prove it. The main advantage dolphins have over a shark during an attack is safety in numbers. Dolphins stick together in a pod and defend one another; they will chase away a shark and use their powerful snout to ram the shark’s soft belly and gills to frighten them away. Dolphins work together to protect vulnerable individuals including babies and injured or sick dolphins.

Sea canaries © Glen McBeth

Which whales sing?

Humpback, blue, fin, bowhead, minke and right whales all sing songs of varying length and complexity.  Humpback whales definitely win the whale-song prize. Their songs are long, beautiful and complicated and they change them over time. If you hear a humpback singing, he is likely to be hanging upside down in the water and singing loudly – is song will sound melodic and other-worldly.  Humpback whale song became a chart-topping hit in the 1970s!

Curious whale © Glen McBeth

What do baleen whales eat?

Baleen whales eat huge amounts of zooplankton called krill.  Krill are pinkish-red, shrimp-like crustaceans that live together in enormous swarms. Baleen whales also eat small fish which live in huge schools. They swallow huge mouthfuls of water and use their baleen to sieve (or filter) out the food.

Humpbacks, fin and blue whales are gulpers – they open their mouths wide and lunge into their prey, taking huge mouthfuls and then pushing the water out through their baleen. A blue whale can eat up to four tonnes of krill in one day.

Right and bowhead whales are skimmers; they swim along with their mouths partly open allowing the water to flow through their baleen which traps their prey. Grey whales feed in the mud on the ocean floor - they scrape up mouthfuls of mud and use their baleen to sift out the creatures hiding in it.

Old bowhead © Glen McBeth

What is a Whale fall?

Dead whales sink or ‘fall’ to the seabed. The huge amounts of carbon in their bodies are locked away in deep ocean sediments for hundreds or even thousands of years.

On the seabed the whale carcass provides food for deep sea creatures adding to the ocean’s foodweb.

Click/tap on image to see full size.

Whale Fall illustration

Jousting narwhals © Glen McBeth

Why do narwhals have tusks?

Narwhals are nicknamed ‘unicorns of the sea’ because they have long, spiral tusks which stick out of their mouth. It is male narwhals that have tusks; females only very rarely have a tusk. We’re not sure what they use them for; perhaps they use them for a few things. Possibilities are to show off to females, breaking through ice, and stunning fish by hitting them before catching them.

Old bowhead © Glen McBeth

How long do they live?

Whales and dolphins can live long lives in the wild. Female bottlenose dolphins live longer than males and we know some dolphins who are in their sixties. Females up to 48 years-old have given birth. Female orcas have even longer life spans – they can live to over 90 years-old.  The oldest known orca was ‘Granny’ who belonged to a southern resident orca community pod, she lived to over 100 years-old.

Bowhead whales are the longest lived of all whales and indeed all mammals. Bowheads can live for over 100 years and some may live for over 200 years. They are slow growing whales that live in freezing cold Arctic seas and this might be the secret to their long lives.