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  • Answers From The Humpback Whale Expert

    To: Journey North
    From: Anne Smrcina,
    Stellwagen Bank Nat'l Marine Sanctuary

    From: FLORIDA
    Q. Why are they called whales?

    A. I had to go to my dictionary for this one. That book states that "Whale" is often attributed to the Middle English from the Old English "hwael" or the Old High German "hwal" and perhaps to the Latin "squalus" which means sea fish. Many years ago people thought they were fishes, since they had fins and lived in the ocean (it also looked like they didn't have any hair). Carl Linnaeus, the famous 18th century Swedish naturalist, found this classification to be wrong (whales nurse, are warm-blooded, have lungs), so he reclassified whales as cetaceans. Cetacea comes from the Greek "Ketos" or the Latin "Cetus" which both mean whale.

    Q. How come they don't have teeth, but bristles?

    A. Some whales do have teeth -- the Odontoceti (sperm whales, orcas, dolphins and porpoises). But the Mysticeti ("mustached whales") have baleen -- that comb-like or brush-like seive made of keratinous fibers. Some 50 million years ago the first whales appeared, evolving from a land animal that moved into the oceans (perhaps for protection or to find more food). In the Sierra Club book "Whales and Dolphins" by Steve Parker the evolution of baleen whales is described. "The first baleen whales had teeth. Fossils show that, starting about 25 to 30 million years ago the baleen fringes appeared and grew bigger while the teeth shrank -- a process that took millions of years to complete. Today, as a baby baleen whale develops inside its mother's womb, it goes through a stage when it has tiny teeth.

    Q. how do they get to be so big in size?

    A. Whales have gotten to be so enormous partly because of the fact that they live in the marine environment. Water, especially salt water, gives the body buoyancy and decreases the problems associated with weight on land (a large body on land would require a heavy frame/skeleton for support). In water, the whale does not need the heavy bones and evolution allowed the larger animals to prosper. Larger animals would be less likely to be targeted by smaller predators. And adaptive feeding techniques have allowed the whales to target prey that can be found in mass quantities (swarms of krill, schools of small fish).
    Largo High School

    Q. Do the young need a special habitat or temperatures in order to survive?

    A. According to scientists I talked to at the Center for Coastal Studies, we don't know for sure if the animals absolutely need certain temperatures. We have never been able to see a live birth among the great whales. But it does seem reasonable that pregnant whales would want to find sheltered, quieter waters to birth. Baby whales also have a much thinner blubber layer, so warmer water may be important for survival. (But in most cases, heat loss is a greater problem for whales than keeping warm.)

    Q. Does the hump serve any purpose to the humpback whale?

    A. The hump (or lump just in front of the dorsal fin) led to its name, but it isn't known if this feature serves any purpose.
    Center School

    Q. Why do baleen whales have 2 nostrils and toothed whales have one? Is there a scientific reason for the difference?

    A. Scientists believe there may be an evolutionary reason for this difference, perhaps in symmetry in the skull and the development of echolocation. Toothed whales echolocate, using their air passages to generate sounds (air is moved between sacs under the blowhole to generate high-pitched sounds) . We do not think that baleen whales use echolocation or, if so, to a much more limited extent. However, baleen whales do generate very low-frequency sounds that may allow for extremely long-distance communication.

    Q. How is it possible for whales to dive deep in the ocean as not have a problem with water pressure? Humans suffer when attempting a deep dive and the dive can become fatal.

    A. What you are asking is "Why don't cetaceans get the bends?" That's just the question that is asked in the book "Whales, Dolphins, Porpoises: Masters of the ocean realm" by John E. Heyning. His answer is: "Cetaceans dive so much deeper and longer than humans-- how do they avoid this misery [the bends]? First of all, when under water, cetaceans are not breathing pressurized air as is the scuba diver. The cetacean holds its breath under water, breathing only at the surface, so there is not a constant supply of new pressurized air to be dissolved into its body. Scientists think that the deepest diving cetaceans may actually exhale before diving so that they have less air in their lungs to be dissolved under pressure. Amazingly, when a cetacean dives deep, under tons of pressure, its lungs actually collapse because there is no new supply of air to pump them up." Whales don't have to worry about excessive nitrogen getting dissolved, compressed and then expanded in their bloodstreams. The air the whale goes down with is the air it comes up with.

    Whales also have more myoglobin, the oxygen-carrying pigment in the muscle. Whales show 2-8 times as much myoglobin as terrestrial mammals; that's why cetacean muscle is much darker than beef and other animal meats. The oxygen-holding capacity of the muscle and blood is another factor in the whale's ability to perform long dives. According to one estimate, total oxygen storage in a human diver is: 34% in the lungs, 41% in the blood, 13% in the muscles, and 12% in other tissues. In the whale, the proportionately smaller and compressed lungs hold only 9% of the oxygen, with 41% in the blood, 9% in tissues, and 41% in the muscles

    From: NEW JERSEY
    Q. How do you track the humpback whales?

    A. Scientists are developing technical means with which to track humpback whales, including radio tags and satellite tags. These mechanical devices send out signals that can be received either by nearby receivers on boats or planes (radio tags) or on far off satellites in space. These tags, however, are very difficult to attach and have a very limited life (based on battery power). Also, the marine environment is extremely harsh and dangerous to electronic equipment. Work progresses in this area. For those of you interested in following the progress of tagged whales, check out the WhaleNet home page at This site has funded tagging projects on a variety of cetacean species.

    In addition to tagging, scientists have tracked whales the old-fashioned way. By sighting and photography. With good photographs of humpback flukes (undersides) and fins, researchers can identify the individual whales and record where and when they have been seen. Right whales are tracked based on identification of callosity patterns.

    Q. Have scientists been able to interpret the sounds whales send to each other?

    A. Scientists are studying whale sounds and attempting to understand their "languages." Sperm whales communicate with click patterns and blue whales produce very loud sounds. Humpbacks (males) are famous for their songs, which are probably involved in mating rituals and to declare territories. Scientists have been able to record songs that are repeated units of sound -- some can last as long as 20 minutes. At first scientists though this song was like a bird's song, but it was discovered that the songs change year to year.

    Q. How much food does a whale eat in one day?

    A humpback whale may eat up to a ton of food a day in its feeding grounds (2,000 pounds of sand lance in the Gulf of Maine or a similar amount of krill in more northern waters). The right whale may be eating about 2,625 pounds of copepods a day when it's in Cape Cod Bay or another feeding ground.
    Iselin Middle School

    Q. How long can a humpback whale stay under water before coming up for air?

    A. According to scientists at the Center for Coastal Studies, a humpback can probably stay underwater for as long as 35 minutes. However, on average up in the Gulf of Maine, the length of time is only about 3-5 minutes (feeding in a fairly shallow area). In the West Indies, the average is 10-15 minutes.

    Q. How many babies can a humpback whale have?

    A. Humpbacks and other whales have only one baby at a time. A whale has never been seen with two live young, however, there were reports during whaling days of a pregnant whale with two fetuses.
    Belle Plaine

    From: ILLINOIS
    Q. What if, hypotheticly, an upwelling came to the Atlantic Ocean, where would the whales go?

    A. Upwelling areas are usually places of high productivity -- attracting zooplankton, fish and probably whales. There are many upwelling areas in the Atlantic Ocean and these are often where whales are spotted -- the banks and continental shelf along the North American coastline, the coastline along Africa, etc.

    Q. If the U.S got flouded with water again, and the Gray whales swam over to the Atlantic, would they be able to live? Sincerely, Ben Andr'e, Caitlin, Mckenna,Ali

    A. It is believed that there may have been gray whales in the Atlantic Ocean several centuries ago, but this population disappered due to hunting. If the North American continent flooded and whales traveled between oceans, it would seem possible that gray whales could survive the move. They would probably continue to eat the kinds of things they eat in the Pacific -- crustaceans they strain from the mud (they would probably stay in the same general latitudes).
    dr. howard elementary school

    From: NEW YORK
    Q. Our fourth grade students at Gotham Avenue School in Elmont, NY have been following the story of JJ, the orphan gray whale rescued by Sea World. This prompted Phylicia Stephenson to ask whether other whales would adopt an orphan calf. Thank you for your most informative reports.

    Mrs. Michaels

    A. I was told by several cetacean researchers that toothed whales have been seen caring for young that are not their own (bottlenose dolphin female relatives will temporarily waylay young). Toothed whales seem to be more social and live in larger pods where animals might mix. Older female pilot whales may help to raise calves of their relatives. We don't know about baleen whales, although it does not seem likely (there are few long-term associations of groups of whales other than mother-calf pairs).
    Gotham Avenue School