Whales are amazing creatures which inspire awe, fear and respect due to their sheer size. As marine creatures that reside in either the depths or the poles, humans knew very little about whales over the course of history; many feared or revered them.
In Old English the word Whale means ‘giant sea fish’ yet, interestingly, they are not fish at all, but mammals. Like us, they breathe air, are social, feed their babies with their own milk, take extraordinarily good care of their young and teach them life skills.
The giant among giants is a type of baleen whale named the Blue Whale, a gentle creature that grows larger than any of the massive dinosaurs or beasts that once roamed on land or swam in the oceans. Here I have 10 jaw-dropping facts about this animal that show just what massive proportions it has.
1. A giant among giants
An adult Blue Whale can grow to a massive 30m (98 feet) long. Stood up it would be almost the height of the Tower of London. It can weigh more than 190,000kg (418,878lbs) - about the same as 40 elephants, 30 Tyrannosaurus Rex or 2,670 average-sized men.
2. Deep breath!
Blue Whales can dive for up to an hour at a time, going to a depth of 100m (328 feet); this is some way short of the 300m a nuclear sub can go to and it’s nothing compared to a whopping 2,250 metres (7,382 ft) the Sperm Whale can plunge to; even so they need highly efficient lungs to survive.
Two enormous blowholes, big enough for a small child to crawl into, allow the fast and efficient exchange of oxygen. Blue Whales exchange between 80 and 90 percent of oxygen in their lungs each time they breathe, compared to just 10 or 15 per cent in humans.
3. Can you hear my heart beating?
Oxygen is pumped around its enormous body by an equally massive, four-chambered heart. Weighing some 900kg (1,984lbs) - and the size of a Mini car - the Blue Whale’s heart beats once every 10 seconds, pumping 220 litres (48 gallons) of blood through its body.
It beats so loudly it can be heard from 3km (1.9 miles) away through sonar equipment. What’s more Blue Whales’ major arteries and veins are so large that a little kid could swim along them, imagine that!
4. Skin deep
A Blue Whale’s skin markings are unique, much like fingerprints. The pale bluish-grey colour gives the species its name, although the skin can also look silvery grey or tan, depending on the light.
A blue whale has between 80 and 100 long grooves running along the length of its throat and chest. These allow its mouth cavity to be so vast and stretchy that it can engulf a volume of water equivalent to its own body mass.
5. No time (or capacity) for tears
Blue Whales have relatively small eyes for their body size - each about the size of a grapefruit - and their eyesight is thought to be weak.
They have no tear glands or eyelashes. At the depths in which they often live the water is so dark that vision serves little purpose, and only hearing is really necessary for navigation.
6. Sound you out
Despite having no external ears, Blue Whales are believed to have excellent hearing, using air sinuses and bones to detect sound. They communicate using low-frequency whistles or rumbling noises which can travel hundreds of kilometres away and reach 188 decibels - louder than a passenger jet.
The Sperm Whale is even louder: its communicative clicks have been measured at 230 dB.
7. Big mouth
Their gigantic mouths — big enough to house 100 people — can capture enormous quantities of prey with each gulp of water, filtering the nutritious krill from the expelled water with stiff bristles that grow from the roof of the mouth.
During the summer months, they eat up to 6,000kg (13,228 lbs) of krill a day.
8. Turning up the heat
Blue Whales reach sexual maturity between five and 10 years of age. They seek warmer equatorial waters before embarking on an elaborate mating ritual that involves the male and female rolling over one another, diving in a deep dive, then suddenly swimming to the surface to copulate.
The males have the biggest penis in the animal kingdom, about 30cm (12 inches) in diameter when erect and 3m (118 inches) in length. You wouldn’t want that fella at the urinal next to you!
9. Thirsty babies
Blue Whales are placental mammals and the foetus develops in the uterus of the mother. The developing foetus grows quickly and after seven months, it is about 3.5m (11.5 feet) long.
The calf is born tail first at 12 months and weighs about 2,700kg (5,952 lbs), swimming immediately to the surface for air. It suckles on its mother’s two nipples, feeding on up to 180 litres (46 gallons) of fat-rich milk a day, allowing it to grow at a daily rate of 90kg (198lbs). Weaning occurs at around seven or nine months, when the calf is some 15m (49 feet) long.
10. Population counts
It is thought that there were once more than 250,000 Blue Whales. Now it is estimated there are between 10,000 and 25,000 left in the world.
After decades of being hunted for their meat, oil, and other valuable body parts, they are now classified as an endangered species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List.