Discover fascinating facts about these mysterious, intelligent and beautiful animals.
Imagine the life of a blue whale–the largest creature ever to have lived on planet Earth.
To a human, the oceanic world of whales can be dangerous and disorienting. Yet a blue
whale commands the element in all its vast cold depths. She finds freedom in the
buoyancy of her 150-ton body there, moving easily through the dimensions–up and
down, side to side, and back and forth–never losing orientation. She is built to
withstand and compensate for the three different atmospheres of pressure that impact
her one-hundred-foot-long body all at once as she dives to depths of about six hundred
She is of an ancient species, evolving over the last fifty million years or so to look
as she does today. Slender pectoral flippers, come to a point at the tip and angle from
the sides of her long, sleek body. A strong, muscular tail, with a fluke that spreads
twenty-five feet across, propels her up to thirty miles per hour. Atop her head, she has
two blowholes like all baleen whales, which allows her to breathe efficiently by simply
breaking the water’s surface, rather than spending the energy to lift her face above
water. Mottled blue-gray skin makes her appear light blue as she glides just under the
water in her ocean home.
To maintain her enormous body, she must forage continuously. She takes one
last deep breath and feels the pressure of thirteen hundred gallons of air filling her
lungs, enough to provide her with twenty to thirty minutes of feeding time. One last
stroke of her broad fluke propels her into the depths. As she sinks, the ocean’s pressure
compresses her body, forcing air into her upper lungs, blood, and muscles nearly black
with hemoglobin for storing oxygen. As she searches at depth for food, her heart, the
size of a small car, slows to only four beats a minute (compared to the average sixty to
one hundred beats a minute of the human heart) to keep ten tons of blood pumping
through her sewer-pipe-size veins.
She comes to the surface to breathe. In one quick motion, as powerful as a
sneeze, the warm air in her lungs meets the cool outside air, causing a puff of mist that
rises thirty feet into the air. She takes three or four breaths and then quickly dives again,
lifting her fluke to angle her body for a deep dive. The water is cold and dark, yet
through her layer of blubber, she feels only a slight sensation on her skin. In the
distance, she hears a loud, low call from another whale who has found food. She rises to
the surface for a breath, turns to travel in the direction of the call, and then dives again.
Below six hundred feet, there is little light. Yet her sense of hearing is so keen
that she can hunt the swarms of tiny krill in the dim depths. When she hears the faint
clicking of a swarm of krill, she rolls onto her side, opens her mouth to taste the saltwater and krill rushing over her tongue as it fills her mouth, and expands the pleats in
her throat like a balloon. She feels the heaviness of fifty tons of water when her mouth is
full. Looking more like an oversized tadpole now than the enormous blue whale she is,
she closes her mouth and squeezes her throat, straining the water through seven
hundred to eight hundred long baleen plates hanging from the roof of her mouth to
trap the krill inside. She swallows, using her tongue to get every last one of the
thousands of krill in that mouthful. She opens her mouth again because the swarm is
not yet consumed. She needs another thirty-eight million of the tiny shrimplike
creatures on this day so she doesn’t go hungry.
It is late June now, and the Pacific Ocean off California is green with life in this
prime season of food production. In the fall, when the food begins to diminish, she will
be on the move, traveling with the others south to the place of mating and birthing, to
warm waters of Costa Rica known as the Costa Rica Dome, for its unique underwater
mountain. Unlike her cetacean relative the humpback whale, she does not forgo feeding
during the winter months. She has found an uncommon area where she can give birth
to her twenty-five-foot, eight-thousand-pound calf in warm surface water and continue
to find enough food nearby in the nutrient-rich environment created by the underwater
mountain. She will need this food for herself and her calf, which will gain two hundred
pounds every day, suckling rich mother’s milk for the first year of its life. This
distinctive strategy utilized by the blues allows them to move between the ocean’s
nutrient-starved deserts to its abundant rain forests of food production, using their own
speed to sustain their enormous caloric needs.
She will travel nearly three thousand miles, perhaps with a suitor acquired in a
feeding area, though she may not see another whale for quite some time. The distance
between herself and the others means almost nothing–sight matters little to them. They
are connected by sound. In fact, she can hear other blue whales one hundred miles
away, because she uses infrasound: low-frequency far-traveling sounds below the range
of human hearing. A blue whale’s loud harmonic calls, usually in the 15 to 20-hertz
range and up to 190 decibels, travel through the ocean’s cold-water channels at depth to
help communicate with other whales, navigate, and find food.
As a blue whale, she is a master of the ocean. Little threatened her kind until
humans invented fast ships and harpoon guns, which could overcome her speed and
agility. Then the blues were hunted to near extinction. Today their numbers are
rebounding, though their recovery is slow. She is still threatened by ship strikes, from
the fast ships coming to port, and the occasional orca attack on the weak and the young-
-but that has always been. She is part of a growing population of some two thousand
blues off the coast of California, near the Channel Islands. Here she finds plentiful
feeding along the edge of the rise in the seafloor that is the Santa Barbara Channel.
This excerpt from “The Breath of a Whale: The Science and Spirit of Pacific Ocean Giants” by
Leigh Calvez is published here with the permission of the author.