Whales and dolphins are some of the most remarkable creatures to be found on the planet. They not only represent some of the largest, but also have within their number the most ambitious commuters and deepest divers in the world. Here are some of the records they hold!
WDC - cetacean consultant to Guinness World Records
The blue whale is not only the biggest whale living today; the blue whale is the biggest creature ever to have lived on Earth. Blue whales are mind-bogglingly gigantic; they are larger than any of the dinosaurs. Blue whales and the other ocean giants live their whole lives in seawater, where their bodies are fully supported.
Blue whales commonly reach 29m (95ft) in length, that’s roughly as long as a basketball court or three London red double-decker buses parked end to end. Blue whales in the Southern Hemisphere are generally larger than those in the Northern Hemisphere and female blues are larger than males.
The longest blue whale on record is a female measured at a South Georgia whaling station in the South Atlantic (1909); she was 33.58m (110ft 17in). The heaviest blue whale was also a female hunted in the Southern Ocean, Antarctica, on 20 March 1947. She weighed 190 tonnes (418,878 lb) which is equivalent to about 30 elephants or 2500 people. Even an average blue whale weighs 145 tonnes or as much as 25 adult African elephants.
With such gigantic proportions you’d expect some other record-breaking achievements and, again, the blue whale doesn’t disappoint. Blue whales have the biggest hearts on the planet; a football team could stand on a blue whale's tongue without falling off and they give birth to the biggest babies too.
Incidentally, in case you were wondering which is the second largest creature ever to have lived, look no further as it’s another whale. Fin whales can weigh over 100 tonnes (100,000kg) and reach an impressive 26m in length.
The Cuvier’s beaked whale is the ocean’s deep diving champion. The record-breaking longest and deepest dive recorded was recorded by scientists who tracked a Cuvier’s beaked whale that held his or her breath for a phenomenal 137.5 minutes and reached a depth of 2,992m (just under 3km or 2 miles) below the surface of the ocean in southern California.
At the very top of all food chains or food pyramids are carnivores. The absolute top, gold-medal winning oceanic predator, above sharks even, is a dolphin – the orca. Orcas have even been recorded attacking and killing great white sharks so they can eat their energy-rich livers. The only predator orcas really have to fear are humans.
Who eats the most?
Sperm whales are the biggest creature with teeth on Earth; the blue whale is much bigger, but is toothless. Male sperm whales are quite a bit bigger than females and grow to 18m (60ft) in length and weigh up to 57 tonnes (57,000kg). Sperm whales mostly hunt prey found on or near the ocean floor; giant, large and medium-sized squid are their favourite food.
The Bowhead whale, which lives in the arctic, has the largest mouth in the world; measuring 5m (16ft) long, 4m (13ft) high and 2.5 m (8ft). Their mouths are steeply arched to accommodate their long baleen plates. When feeding, bowheads open their mouths and skim through the water. As the water flows through their mouths, it passes through the baleen and food (tiny crustaceans) gets trapped on the plates. Bowheads use their huge, thick, muscular tongues, which weigh about 900kg to wipe off the prey caught in their baleen plates, ready for swallowing.
Longest mammal migration
Baleen whales are long-distance travellers, and the champions amongst them include gray whales and humpback whales. These whales regularly make incredible annual journeys of between 4000 and 5095 miles (6400 to 8200km) each way, between their favoured cold water feeding grounds and their warm water breeding grounds. Some humpback whale populations have been found to journey even further than this, swimming between Antarctic waters where they feed, across the Equator to reach their coastal breeding sites in Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica. This is a round-trip of up to 7000 miles (11,300km).
For the time being though, the award for the longest whale migration and the longest migration recorded for any mammal, goes to a grey whale named ‘Vavara’. Scientists tracked Vavara, a female gray whale, as she swam a round-trip of 13,988 miles (22,511km) in 172 days. She migrated between the east coast of Russia to the gray whale breeding grounds in Mexico and back again.
Smartest marine creature
Although it is hard for scientists to agree on how best to measure intelligence and it is difficult to compare intelligence from one species to another, broadly speaking, intelligence can be defined as the ability to learn and apply knowledge; to understand new or challenging situations and the ability to think abstractly. Dolphins clearly demonstrate the ability to do all of these things and most scientists agree that dolphins are very intelligent creatures.
Dolphins have a large brain. Large brain animals like humans, chimpanzees, and dolphins have a number of things in common. They generally live long lives. They form stable communities. They demonstrate complex emotions such as happiness, sadness and grief. They can assess situations and problem solve. And their offspring are totally dependent on their parents during childhood.
Dolphins have large and complex brains. They are fast learners, have advanced communication systems and develop complex social networks. They make plans together and cooperate with one another to hunt, protect themselves and bring up their young. Dolphins have senses of empathy, altruism and attachment. They are creative and playful creatures, and seem to enjoy playing and seek the companionship of others. They will work together to take care of injured or sick pod mates.
Dolphins are one of only a few species that pass the ‘mirror test’. They recognise their own reflection in a mirror; they inspect themselves and look at parts of their bodies in the mirror that they can’t usually see, they also make movements and examine themselves for this movement. These behaviours indicate self-awareness of a highly intelligent species.
Dolphins are the best marine gymnasts in the world; the most impressive acrobats are dusky, spinner and striped dolphins.
Dusky dolphins are fast, active swimmers and are famous for their high, complex leaps and group leaping sessions. They perform amazingly high jumps, flips, and twists. Experts think dolphins leap for a number of reasons; as a social activity, to scout for food or just to have fun. Six or more duskies can launch simultaneously in a small patch of ocean, each heading in a different direction, yet seemingly very much in tune with one another – they are definitely the greatest of all showmen!
Spinner dolphins are best known for their aerial displays of leaping and spinning. No other dolphins except for the Clymene dolphin, spins like this and only spinner dolphins complete several full body rotations (barrel rolls) during mid-flight before slapping back down on the surface. Spinners can leap up to 14 times in a row and a single spinning leap can include as many as four body revolutions. Spinners can also somersault head over tails.
Striped dolphins also deserve a mention here they are also skilled acrobats. They are active fast swimming dolphins who can leap 6 or 7m (20 – 23ft) above the surface, they are capable of amazing acrobatics including somersaults, tail spins and backward flips. Striped dolphins display a unique acrobatic behaviour called roto-tailing; they make high arcing jumps while rapidly rotating their tail which gives them extra thrust!
A fully grown blue whale’s heart can weigh up to 455kg (1000lbs or 0.46 tonne) which is the same as a fully grown male polar bear or a concert grand piano. For comparison, a human heart weighs up to a measly 350g (0.77lb) about the same as a 4-week old kitten or a can of tomato soup. Several museums around the world have full- size models of blue whale hearts, which are as tall as an adult man and show that the aorta (main heart artery) is big enough to fit a person inside!
A blue whale’s heart beats only 8 to 10 times per minute and circulates 5300 litres or 9326 pints of blood around the whale’s body. A human heart beats 60 to 80 times per minute and circulates 4.5 - 5.5 litres (8 - 9.6 pints) of blood around our bodies.
The largest brain on Earth belongs to the sperm whale. The adult sperm whale brain is 8000 cm3, which is more than five times the volume of ours, a comparably small 1300 cm3. A sperm whale’s brain weighs up to 9kg (almost 20lbs) which is 6 times heavier than a human brain.
In evolutionary terms, we humans have only had the big brains we do now for about 200 thousand years; in contrast, the current size of the sperm whale brain has changed little from that of its cetacean ancestors, which evolved some 55 million years ago.
Sperm whales have huge heads which account for up to a third of their overall body length. Most of the space inside their heads is taken up by their unique spermaceti echolocation organ. This is a cavity filled with yellowish fine oil called spermaceti that was much sought after by whalers.
A blue whale weighing 60-70 tons (and the largest blue whales can double this weight) has a 3 tons tongue. It is by far the largest tongue in the animal world.
The male right whale has the largest testicles (and penis) in the world. An average right whale penis measures 2.3m (7.5ft) long and the testicles together weigh almost a tonne (1000kg)!
Longest living mammal
Bowhead whales live all year around in icy-cold Arctic waters. They are slow moving and slow-growing whales and do not reach sexual maturity until they are 20 to 25 years old. Scientists believe bowheads can live longer than humans and are the longest-lived of all mammals. The maximum lifespan for bowheads is currently unknown, but multiple lines of evidence including stone harpoon tips found embedded in bowhead blubber from failed attempts by whalers and detailed analysis of their eye tissues, point to bowheads being able to live for at least 150 years and quite possibly over 200 years.
A bowhead whale killed in 2007 by Eskimos was found to have carried a harpoon point in its neck for more than a hundred years. Experts matched the harpoon to a New England factory which was making these harpoons around 1880. Assuming this bowhead was an adult when an attempted hunt lodged the harpoon point, if the bowhead was 20 years old when first hit, that would make the whale 127 years old (minimum) when hunted in 2007.
Blue whales give birth to the biggest and heaviest babies in the world. At birth, a blue whale baby measures 6 – 8m (20 - 23ft) long; and weighs between 6000 and 7900lbs (up to 3583kg or 3.5 tonnes) this is similar to the weight of a fully grown female Asian elephant.
The baby feasts on mum’s fat-laden milk (it is 40-50% fat) and drinks about 225 litres (396 pints) which is about enough to fill a bath, every day, gaining about 4kg an hour. This is the fastest growth rate of any creature on Earth; the baby gains up to 100kg (220lbs) in body weight every day. That’s up to a tonne in weight every 10 days!
A blue whale baby is weaned at 7-9 months old and about 15m (49ft) from nose to tail. The mother and calf stay together for about a year in total and the youngster will reach maturity at 5-15 years old. Blue whales are thought to live for 70 – 80 years.
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