Deep-Sea Mysteries – The Whale Files

Whales may look very different from us, but we have a lot in common. like us, Whales are mammals. They breathe air just like we do. They also give birth to live young who nurse on their mothers’ milk. But whales are also similar to humans in other ways that not all mammals share. They have complex social groups and their young often stay with their families for a long time. Many species appear to have their own language, including names for other whales in their group.

How to tail whales apart?

Scientists who want to study whale migration or social structures need to be able to tell the whales apart. Luckily, they can identify individual whales by their markings. For example, no two humpback whale tails are the same. Blue whales can be identified by the pattern of white spots near their dorsal fins. Using unique markings, people all over the world can make observations of the same whale. Students, citizens, and scientists can all play a role. And putting all of these observations together lets scientists tell the story of a whale’s life. Observations can show where a whale has migrated, identify which whales spend time together, and determine whether their social groups change from year to year.

Humpback Whale:
Humpback Whale: Black n white patterns of the flukes’ ventral surface
Killer Whale:
Killer Whale: Light-colored saddle patches behind the dorsal fin
Right Whale
Right Whale: Callosities around the head, eyes, and blowhole

What is Ambergris?

One of the world’s weirdest and rarest natural substances is produced by whales. It is called ambergris and it is only produced by sperm whales. Ambergris has been highly sought after for thousands of years and it is so expensive it is called “floating gold.” Most recently, it has been used as a perfume ingredient. Before then, it was thought to have magical powers. This supposedly awesome substance looks like a smelly, waxy, floating rock. It can be white, black, brown or yellow.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Save The Whales

Save the whales
Illustrations Olga Gonina, Credit Smore Science

In the late 1800s and 1900s, people aggressively hunted whales to make fuel from their fats and oils. When hunting habits were aided by improved technology, it almost drove some species to extinction. Gradually people started to transition from whale oil to fossil fuels. Whale hunting de-creased through the 1900s as a result. Many modern whales are killed simply because the ocean is a very busy place. Some whales are hit by ships. Others get tangled in fishing gear or trash. And the noise created by oil exploration equipment or military exercises can leave whales scared or confused.

But some people are trying to fight back – starting with better education. People who have learned more about whales, especially their songs, have pressured politicians to protect whales. Many countries have banned whaling. Some areas have rules that protect whales from noisy equipment. Trash and fishing regulations have been put in place to protect them as well. Thanks to these efforts, there are more whales now than there were 100 years ago.

How is Ambergris formed?

Sperm whales eat squid, but squid have hard, sharp beaks that whales cannot digest. The whales’ stomachs surround the beaks with secretions that are rich in fat. Scientists think this fluid protects the whale’s insides from getting poked. Usually the whale vomits out a ball of beaks and juice while the rest of its meal proceeds to its intestines. 

Occasionally the whale’s digestive system makes a mistake. The beaks go into the intestines. Perhaps in response to being poked by sharp beaks, more fatty fluids surround the beak ball. The fluids eventually harden around the ball. The ball can sit there for years until the whale excretes it. No one has ever seen ambergris leave a whale’s body, but scientists think it goes the same way as a Number Two. 

This chunk of fat and squid beaks floats to the surface of the ocean. The longer the ambergris floats, the more of the ambrein it contains. Ambrein is the substance that gives ambergris its distinct, musky odor and its ability to help perfume retain its smell over time. This makes it increasingly valuable with age.

Match the Whale to the Clue

Match the Whale to the Clue
Illustration Olga Gonina, Credit Smore Science

Answers 1-D, 2-A, 3-E,4-B,5-C,6-F

Article originally published in issue #4 Mar – Apr 2018. Subscribe to Smore Magazine.

Copyright @smorescience. All rights reserved. Do not copy, cite, publish, or distribute this content without permission.

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  • Allison Sayer

    Allison has a master’s degree in Biology. She lives in Alaska and wears many hats: She’s a fisheries scientist, an educator, a wilderness guide, a commercial fisherman, and a manager at a remote environmental and arts education center. Her hobbies are backcountry skiing, cooking, and gardening. Science is a big part of all her personal and professional pursuits.