World Whale Day 2019 – Giants of the Ocean
February 20, 2019

by Caitlin Kensett Smith

Humpback Whale Photo credit: Dr Gwen Penry

Did you know, the largest animal to ever live on earth is the Blue Whale? It is so massive that their tongue alone can weigh as much as an elephant, and their heart can weigh as much as a car! With this enormous size, comes a massive appetite and records show that an adult blue whale can consume up to 36,000 kgs of krill a day! That’s a lot of krill!

Not all whales share in this massive diet, however, as not all whales are the same. Other whale species instead choose to feed on small marine life such as fish, larvae, plankton, crabs, squid and others feed on larger marine mammals including sea lions, seals, sharks, seabirds and even other whales. The diet of a whale is largely dependent on the group of whales with which it belongs. Firstly, all whales are mammals; just like us, they are warm-blooded, breathe air through their lungs, give birth to live young, and feed their young milk. Secondly, all whales belong to the order Cetacea, and along with dolphins and porpoises, are collectively known as Cetaceans. Within this order, whales are then subdivided into two groups – baleen and toothed whales.

Baleen whales are toothless, instead having a comb-like fringe (called baleen) on their upper jaw, which basically acts as a strainer. Once a gulp of water has been taken by the whale, the baleen is thin enough to allow the water to filter back through and thick enough to trap the food such as plankton, small fish and crustaceans. Some of the largest whale species belong to this group including the Blue Whale, Humpback Whale and Southern Right Whale (the latter two being found on South African coasts). Toothed whales, as their name would suggest, have teeth and are generally smaller than baleen whales. Dolphins and porpoises also belong to this group, and members of this group feed on fish, squid, other marine mammals and sometimes even other whales.

South Africa is lucky enough to be one of the best places in the world to see whales, with the whales most commonly seen being Bryde’s Whales, Southern Right Whales and Humpbacks Whales. The best time for watching these whales is June to November, along the Southern Coast. 

So, while this is all interesting, why am I telling you all about whales? Well, this year, on the 20th of February, we celebrate World Whale Day! This day is an annual event which originated in Maui, Hawaii back in 1980 to honour humpback whales, however now, is used to raise awareness for all species of this incredible group of animals that live in our oceans throughout the world. Awareness of whales is vital as some populations of whales are still unable to recover from historic whaling. Many whales were hunted close to extinction with exceptionally high mortality rates, and some species are still at risk of extinction. Thankfully, some populations have been able to recover since the International Whaling Commission (IWC) issued a ban on whaling in 1986.

While there is still a long way to go, raising awareness about these gentle giants will hopefully aid in increasing protection and consequently increasing populations for these truly remarkable underwater creatures.

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