Whales are highly intelligent creatures and the friendliest of marine animals. Despite their enormous size, they are unlikely ever to attack human beings — but their friendliness often gets them into trouble as they can be easy pickings for whalers who hunt them for their fat and meat.
Whaling has got so bad over recent decades that the two largest whales in the world are now endangered species. Catching them is illegal, but this has not stopped an illegal trade from flourishing.
The whaling industry can in many ways be seen as a tragedy of man, as whales are among the most graceful and beautiful animals on the planet. Here we look at the ten largest whales in the world, counting down to number one.
Which is the biggest whale in the world?
10 Narwhal Whale
The Narwhal whale has earned the nickname “the Unicorn” because of the male’s unique protruding spiked canine tooth. This tusk can be as long as 10ft, half the length of a full-grown adult’s 20ft body.
Narwhals also have a second tooth about 1ft long which usually remains embedded in the skull. However, both canines grow to full length in around 1 in 500 males. Narwhals are found in Canadian waters and around Greenland, and weigh upwards of 3,500lbs.
They travel in pods of 15-20 and are considered an endangered species. They are prey to polar bears and walruses when they get trapped in shifting ice, and they are also often attacked by orca whales when swimming offshore. In the summer Narwhals are also hunted by humans. In parts of Greenland, traditional kayaks and spears are used to catch them but in Canada and other parts of Greenland speed boats and rifles are used. Narwhals feed on fish such as cod and halibut, as well as shrimp and squid.
9 Beluga Whale
Beluga whales are found in the Arctic and seas around Russia, Greenland and North America. They live together in small pods but when the sea freezes over they migrate south in large groups. Animals which get trapped in the ice soon become prey for polar bears, killer whales and commercial fisheries. They are all white in color and have a missing dorsal fin.
They grow to 18ft long and weigh 3,500lbs. They are the most unfit of all whales as between 40-50 per cent of their body weight is pure fat. They eat fish, crustaceans and worms. Despite what some people think, Beluga Caviar does not come from Beluga whales but from sturgeon — which the whales are not related to in any way.
8 Minke Whale
This whale is lesser known than some of the others and grows to 24ft long, weighing 10 tons. Minke whales are black, grey and purple in color and they are easily distinguishable by their white band on each flipper. Minke whales are found in the northern hemisphere and normally live to between 30 and 50 years old although some have been known to live to be 60 years old.
They eat plankton and small fish and will chase schools of sardines, anchovies, cod, herring and capelin to capture their prey. They can dive for up to 25 minutes when looking for food but normally only dive for 10-12 minutes. They have about 300 pairs of short, smooth teeth and their largest teeth are less than 12 inches long and 5 inches wide.
7 Orca Whale
These whales belong to the dolphin family and are probably the best known whale as they feature in sea life centers and aquariums around the world. They are very intelligent and easy to train, which is why they are often the star attractions in aquatic shows.
Easily distinguishable by their black and white appearance they grow to more than 65 feet in length and weigh up to six tons. They are found in all oceans and seas but mostly in cold waters like the Antarctic.
They are also known as killer whales although they are not vicious to humans. They get their “killer” name as their diet is based on other marine mammals and they will attack other whales including the huge Blue Whale for food. They have also been known to grab seals off the ice. In the open water they can live as long as 60 years but they are not particularly happy in captivity and only live for 25 years there.
6 Humpback Whale
Like the Orca, this is a very well known species of whale as it is the one tourists most often see when they go on whale-watching trips. It is one of the slowest whales around which is why the boats can get so close.
They congregate in pods and reach up to 52ft in length, weighing up to 40 tons. They are found in all the oceans of the world and in the summer they leave Arctic waters to migrate to warmer feeding grounds near the Equator.
They eat shrimp-like krill, plankton and small fish. They are also known for their magical songs and scuba divers can hear their melancholy noises from long distances under water. They usually stay near the coastline which is why they make a wonderful sight for tourists.
5 Bowhead Whale
Related to the Right Whale, Bowhead whales grow up to around 66ft in length and can weigh up to 74 tons. Also known as the Greenland Right Whale or the Arctic Whale they are mostly found in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters.
Because they are slow swimmers they make easy targets for whale hunters and they are getting increasingly scarce with only 24,000 left in the world.
They are distinguishable because of their stocky appearance and they do not have a dorsal fin. It is their short, narrow flippers that make them such slow swimmers.
Their bow-shaped head takes up 40 per cent of their body length and their huge mouth is arched and is up to 10ft wide and 20ft deep. They eat plankton and krill and also pick up prey from mud on the ocean floor.
4 Sperm Whale
This is the largest of the toothed whales and its name comes from the waxy liquid found in its enormous head. It grows to 67 feet long and at full size weighs about 60 tons. It also has the largest brain of any animal in the world and is the deepest diving mammal.
Sperm whales can be found in Antarctic waters and their main diet is giant squid. The females and young males tend to gather in groups whilst the adult males prefer to be on their own when it is not the mating season.
They are now a protected species because they are much sought-after by whalers because of the liquid in their head which is a form of wax called spermaceti. This is used in lubricants, oil lamps and candles and can make whale hunters a lot of money.
3 Right Whale
This is one of the ugliest creatures on the planet with a large bulbous head which is usually covered in callouses, barnacles, worms and whale lice. Right whales are also the rarest and most endangered species of whale with only several hundred believed to be left in the world. They grow up to 80 feet long and weigh 100 tons because they have an extremely high blubber content.
The Southern Right Whale and two species of Northern Right whales, which are all large baleen whales, can be found in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, often near the coast. They have large jaws with hundreds of baleen teeth and they eat zoo plankton and other tiny organisms. They have been hunted to near extinction because they produce large quantities of whale oil.
2 Finback Whale
These whales are also an endangered species due to commercial hunting practices. Known as the greyhound of the sea they grow to 90 feet long and weigh 74 tons.
Also known as the Fin Whale or the razorback due to the ridge along their backs behind the dorsal fin they are hunted for their valuable blubber, oil and baleen.
They used to inhabit the Southern Hemisphere but nearly 750,000 of them were killed between 1904 and 1979 so they are rarely seen there now and are mostly found in the North Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans.
They eat herring, capelin and other shoaling fish along with squid and krill-shrimp-like crustaceans.
1 Blue Whale
Not only is the Blue Whale by far and away the biggest whale, it is also the largest animal on earth growing to 100 feet long and weighing 150 tons. The tongue of the Blue Whale alone weighs as much as an elephant and the heart as much as an automobile.
The Blue Whale has been an endangered species since the 1960s as it is believed there are only 5,000-12,000 left in the entire world. They be found in all the planet’s oceans. They swim at an average of about 5mph but can accelerate to 20mph when they have to and they eat four to eight tons of krill every day.
Have you ever seen a whale in real life? What was it like?