Whales: The Mysteries of the World's Largest Animal

“There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath…”

— Sherman Melville, Moby-Dick

Majestic, ethereal and fascinating, whales are one of those animals that have fascinated humans for millennia. There are so many aspects of their everyday life that remain mysteries to us, but nevertheless, they always capture our imagination and sense of awe when in the presence of these animals. Discover some of the mysteries about whales that still confound and intrigue scientists and the world at large.

Why Do Whales Sing?

Thanks to pop culture touchstones like Finding Nemo, most of us know that whales sing, in fact, the lullaby-like quality that their ‘songs’ have mas made them some of the most popular playlists for people to relax and unwind to on Spotify. It’s no wonder, they have an enchanting rhythm that echoes through the deep ocean water with an ethereal, haunting and even solitary nature, making one feel as though they are almost drifting through space and time.

We are so fascinated by their songs, that in 1977, NASA even sent whale songs into interstellar space on the Voyager I, along with a compilation of Earth’s most captivating sounds. As Nick Pyenson wrote in Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures, “We sent whalesong into interstellar space because the creatures that sing these songs are superlative beings that fill us with awe, terror, and affection. We have hunted them for thousands of years and scratched them into our mythologies and iconography. Their bones frame the archways of medieval castles. They’re so compelling that we imagine aliens might find them interesting — or perhaps understand their otherworldly, ethereal song.”

Perhaps, the reason why we find whale songs so transfixing is that we don’t truly know why they do it. It’s not for lack of effort either, whales can be notoriously elusive and scientists have studied and recorded the sounds they make and their patterns of behaviour. It is thought that one reason they sing is to communicate over long distances and perhaps bond with other members of their pod. However, although some headway has been made into uncovering the mystery of why they sing, no concrete conclusions have been made and it’s possible we may never know.

Why Do Whales Breach?

There are few things more majestic and awe-inspiring than seeing a whale breach. The act itself seems as though it should be impossible as these massive animals appear to defy gravity as they shoot out of the water with such force and energy. As majestic as these moments are, we don’t really know why they do it, is it just for enjoyment or is there more to it?

There are a few theories as to why they do it, the first and most likely theory is that they do it as a means of communication. If you’ve ever been whale-watching, you might notice that a whale may slap its fins or tail on the water surface and a few moments later any nearby whale may repeat the action. However, In heavier weather, this action is not as easy to execute so you’re more likely to see a whale breach during choppy or even rough waves. This has led to the theory that they may do it as a clearer way to communicate and navigate through difficult weather. Kind of how humans will shout to communicate something, the reason often changes but the point is to communicate.

Another theory is that they do it to remove parasites that accumulate on their body, particularly on their faces and fins. Whales will often accumulate a significant amount of barnacles and parasites called Cyamids or otherwise known as '“Whale Lice”, after a while these parasites can become very irritating to the whale’s skin. It is thought that the sheer force that occurs when a whale breaches, helps to remove some of these unwanted hitchhikers and essentially is a flamboyant way to scratch an itch.

One other theory is that whales simply do it for fun and to alleviate tension and pent up energy particularly for younger whales and calves. You might not think it, but whales, particularly young whales are very playful and social creatures, it is thought that breaching helps a young what to exercise their growing body and develop better control and spacial awareness of their body and surroundings. This is another one of those mysteries about whales that many have theorised on and it’s possible that the reason they breach is one or a combination of many factors but we may never know the true reason why they exhibit this extraordinary behaviour.

Why are they so big?

The blue whale is the largest animal to have ever lived, their sheer size has made them a hot topic for fascination and exploration, to find out why they are the sizes that they are. The prehistoric age is long gone, and with it, nearly all of the gigantic and oversized animals that once walked this earth, its a wonder then, why whales, particularly blue and humpback whales still remain and don’t appear to be getting any smaller anytime soon.

The mystery of why they are so big has only just started to be unravelled in the past 20 years as technology allows scientists unprecedented access to the everyday lives and patterns of these majestic animals. It is now understood that the size of whales is linked to two factors: first, their choice of food, and second, the evolutionary overlap between whales and a greater global increase in the upwelling of nutrient-rich water from the ocean’s depths.

A relatively recent ancestor of today’s whales known as ‘rorquals’, developed the behaviour known as “lunge feeding”, this allowed them to catch a greater amount of small fish and krill with their mouths in one go. However, to catch more food, you need a larger mouth and therefore a large body to support it. From here, whales evolved to have larger and larger bodies to accommodate for the massive supply of new food rising from the ocean floor. However, this doesn’t quite explain why blue whales are now the size that they are, with the Fin Whale; the world’s second-largest animal not even being half of a blue whale’s weight.

Although a greater supply of food in the ocean was a boon to rorquals, they were not the only predators taking advantage of the new supply of food. In order to survive and push out other competition, some rorquals adapted to specialise in one specific type of food, blue whales adapted to specialise in krill. This meant that they needed to be large enough to have plentiful energy reserves to make the long journey from pole to pole, where krill are found; meaning an even larger body. As well, they also needed a large mouth to catch enough krill to make up for their lack of mobility and dexterity and to sustain them, thus their massive size evolved to their extremely specialised hunting requirements which ultimately allowed them to survive.

Lladró’s Whale Sculptures are one of the newest releases in Lladró’s range, featuring a unique design aesthetic unlike anything before seen.

Unfortunately, what has allowed blue whales to survive and become the size that they are is a double-edged sword. Specialising so greatly and becoming so fined tuned to hunt krill comes with its risks, changes to an ecosystem tends to hurt the specialists first and worst. Blue whales today find themselves in a warming ocean, competing with humans and other, more versatile animals for their prey and at the same time we have also seen long-term declines in phytoplankton production and krill abundance, driven in part by climate change and overfishing. Lladró’s Whale Sculptures featuring a mother whale and her calf are a tribute to the magnificence of the Blue Whale and encompass the images of gentle giants. With their haunting songs, curious habits and unbelievable size, these animals seem almost like a reminder of a bygone age when nearly mythical creatures inhabited our world.

Lladró’s Whale (left) and Little Whale (right).
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