The largest creatures on earth, whales have fascinated and intimidated humans for hundreds of years.
As a result, they’ve been held up as deities and demonized for attacking boats.
Over the years, humans have worshipped them as easily as they’ve destroyed them.
Fortunately, efforts by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) have helped the world’s whale stocks recover from commercial whaling.
However, today’s whales still face some challenges, with some of the largest being most at risk.
What is the Biggest Whale in the World?
The blue whale is the largest whale species, but it’s also the biggest animal on our planet.
Roughly the length of three double-decker buses, the blue whale measures approximately 98 feet long and weighs up to 200 tons.
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Despite being so huge, blue whales exist on a diet of some of the tiniest organisms in the ocean, including zooplankton and tiny crustaceans.
Previously thought to consume around nearly 8,000 lb, or “3600 kg of krill per day,” a study published last year discovered that baleen whales eat far more than that.
“An individual blue whale, for example, eats an average of 16 tons of food every day.” That’s around three times more than scientists previously believed.
Like all the largest whale species, the blue whale belongs to the baleen whale group, also known as Mysticetes.
Instead of teeth, baleen whales have fringed baleen plates made out of keratin.
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It uses these to filter small organisms out of vast quantities of water. In doing so, it enters into a symbiotic relationship with its prey.
As the blue whale eats, it takes iron from deep areas of the ocean and brings it to the surface in the form of floating feces.
There, it becomes food for tiny phytoplankton which, in turn, feed the krill that baleen whales rely on as their primary food source.
Without whales, there is no krill and, without krill, there can be no whales.
Researchers studying the Antarctic blue whales hypothesized that the dramatic effect whaling had on the Antarctic population also impacted krill.
Without the whales eating and pooping, there wasn’t enough iron in the Southern Ocean to sustain the usual population of phytoplankton.
This led to a reduced population of krill that’s still struggling to recover.
The Antarctic blue whale is also endangered, largely due to the aforementioned whaling industry.
Although the IWC banned commercial whaling in the Sixties, “illegal hunting continued until 1972.” The population of Antarctic blue whales subsequently declined to around 3,000 individuals in 2018.
Fortunately, the blue whale population is recovering, albeit slowly.
For example, off the coast of South Georgia, in the South Atlantic Ocean, scientists have gone from seeing just two blue whales in 40 to 50 years to seeing 55 in just 23 days!
They probably hear them as well, given that blue whales are the loudest animal in the world and the biggest.
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Blue whales emit around “11 decibels per kilogram of its body mass” and can be heard 160km away! So they contribute as much to ocean noise as they do to its ecosystem.
Let’s hope the largest animal in the world continues to thrive.
What is the Second Largest Whale in the World?
The fin whale is the second largest whale species and is closely related to the blue whale.
However, more streamlined than the blue whale, the fin whale can reach much faster speeds despite its considerable size.
When born, the fin whale already measures around 20 feet long. By the time it reaches maturity, it will have trebled that.
Female fin whales average around 73 feet in length while males hover around 70 feet.
Found throughout the ocean’s basins, the fin whale heads to the summer feeding grounds of the Antarctic each year, along with blue, minke, and humpback whales.
Rarely targeted by early commercial whaling operations, the fin whale population of the Southern Hemisphere declined rapidly between the 1930s and Sixties.
Scientists estimate that the global population dropped “by more than 70%” between 1935 and 2013.
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In the Mediterranean, where there are high levels of vessel traffic, the fin whale suffered badly due to ship strikes and problems associated with high levels of ocean noise and “the risk of entanglement in fishing gear.”
Like other baleen whale species, fin whales engulf tonnes of seawater every day as they filter out small fish, krill and copepods.
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#10 Minke Whale – 35 feet
There’s nothing small about the minke whale at roughly the same length as a standard city bus.
There are two species of minke whales. Common minke whales are found throughout the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
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On the other hand, Antarctic minke whales spend their entire lives in the Southern Hemisphere, straying into subpolar waters during the summer months.
Fast and agile swimmers, the minke whale is one of the world’s most abundant baleen whale species.
They are also the smallest of the rorqual family, including fin and blue whales.
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Minke whales are also filter feeders, like our two largest whales. Gulping in large amounts of water, they opportunistically feed on crustaceans, plankton, and small schooling fish.
#9 Bryde’s Whale – 46 feet
Measuring 46 feet from tip to tail, these solitary creatures have three long ridges on top of their heads, distinguishing them from all other whale species.
Bryde’s whales prefer the temperate waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. Because of this, they are also known as the Tropical Whale.
An interesting fact about Bryde’s whales is that they can spend up to 15 minutes under the water before returning to the surface to breathe. During this time, they dive to depths of around 1,000 feet.
Like all whales, the Bryde’s whale is a mammal that gives birth to live young and supports them during the first year of life with milk from the mammary slits on its stomach.
Even though the Bryde’s whale was first described in 1913, this elusive mammal still has scientists puzzled.
There’s a consensus that two distinct populations of Bryde’s whales exist – one offshore and the other coastal.
However, until recently, no specimens of the offshore population had ever been seen.
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In 2017, however, an unusual whale was stranded in Namibia, leaving scientists to believe this could be the very whale they’d been seeking – the offshore Bryde’s whale.
If that proves to be the case, scientists hope that “all other Bryde’s whales around the world can be compared to this one to determine if we have multiple different subspecies or populations.”
#8 Gray Whale – 49 feet
At 49 feet long, the gray whale is about the same size as a commercial airline plane.
Early whalers called the gray whale the devil fish because the mothers would destroy small whaling boats to free their harpooned calves.
These impressive marine mammals are one of the ocean’s great migrators.
Traveling in small groups, known as pods, they traverse the world’s oceans from their summer feeding grounds in Arctic waters to more temperate climes off the Mexican coast.
Critically endangered in the early 1990s, the population of gray whales has since recovered, and the species was removed from the United States endangered species list in 1994.
At the last count, in 2016, there were an estimated 27,000 gray whales in the eastern North Pacific, suggesting a worldwide rebound.
#7 Sei Whale – 52 feet
Long and sleek, the sei whale is one of the fastest whale species in the world.
Capable of reaching speeds of over 54 kph, sei whales spend most of their time in shallow waters.
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Although the sei whale’s hooked dorsal fin rarely breaks the water’s surface, they leave ‘fluke prints’ on the water’s surface during their shallow dives.
During the height of commercial whaling activities, the global population of sei whales was reduced by around 300,000.
Although the species now benefit from legal protection, its population has struggled to recover.
Estimates suggest that, as of 2021, there were approximately 80,000 sei whales in the world – roughly a third of their pre-whaling numbers.
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Like other baleen whales, the sei whale feed on plankton, cephalopods, and small schooling fish.
Preferring to eat at dawn, they use a combination of gulping and skimming to consume their required 2,000 pounds of food per day.
#6 Humpback Whale – 52 feet
The humpback whale is the focus of many whale-watching tourist activities worldwide with its spectacular aerial performances.
We often see its signatory blows and splashes from several kilometers away along the South African coast.
Found all over the world, primarily in continental shelf areas, humpback whales have long pectoral fins and powerful flukes, or tail fins, which they use to propel themselves out of the water.
Another interesting fact about humpback whales is their ability to “sing.” Scientists are still unsure of the purpose of their complex sequences of moans, cries, and howls but believe they use them “to communicate with others and to attract potential mates.”
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Recently removed from Australia’s endangered list, the humpback whale’s population is far from stable.
Some environmental groups fear the species could still suffer from rising ocean temperatures and habitat loss, and vessel strikes in some areas like the Eastern Tropical Pacific.
#5 Bowhead Whale – 59 feet
With their large, bow-shaped mouths and powerful skulls, bowhead whales live in the colder waters of the northern hemisphere.
While it may not be the largest whale, the bowhead has the largest baleen plates of any whale species, measuring between 9 and 14 feet in length.
Another interesting fact about the bowhead whale is that it’s the longest-living mammal globally.
It may not be able to compete with a 500-hundred-year-old Greenland shark, but it can live for around 200 years.
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Like the humpback whale, bowhead whales attract their mates through song, with the male serenading the female before mating.
However, they have to wait quite a while before testing their voices, as they only reach sexual maturity at around 20 years old.
#4 Right Whale – 60 feet
The right whale is one of the most critically endangered large whale species.
It was called ‘right’ because it was the right whale to hunt. Not only did it move slowly, but it contained enough blubber that it would float once killed.
Right whales were highly sought after for their “plentiful oil and baleen, which were used for corsets, buggy whips, and other contrivances.”
There are three populations of right whales in the world – two in the northern hemisphere and one in the south.
Unfortunately, the population of North Atlantic right whales has continued to decline despite “six decades of international legal protection.”
On the other hand, the Southern right whale has made a remarkable recovery, although commercial fishing operations still have a devastating impact on the ecosystems they rely on to survive.
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#3 Sperm Whale – 67 feet
Whales are divided into two major groups – baleen and toothed whales.
While most of the ocean’s large whales belong to the first group, sperm whales belong to the second.
Rather than filter-feeding, sperm whales are predatory animals with voracious appetites for large squid. They also prey on other cephalopods and fish.
Sperm whales have the largest brain of any living creature.
The adult sperm whale brain is around 8,000 cubic cm in size compared to a human brain which is just 1300 cubic cm.
Protected by their powerful skulls, a sperm whale’s brain gives them a range of highly specialized skills.
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These include an excellent sense of hearing and the ability to locate its prey using echolocation, although just how intelligent they are remains something of a mystery.
What is Bigger than a Blue Whale?
It’s difficult to find anything bigger than the largest animals in the ocean.
On earth, the largest animal is the elephant, but that comes nowhere near the size of a blue whale.
According to some, “Their tongues alone can weigh as much as an elephant.”
This may be a slight exaggeration but, with the African elephant weighing between 4,000 and 14,000 lb, and the blue whale’s tongue tipping the scales at 5,400 pounds, it’s certainly close.
You’d need to put seven standard-sized cars end to end to get to something bigger than a blue whale.
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Alternatively, you could line up five trucks and get something just slightly larger than a blue whale.
To get the equivalent bodyweight is even harder.
Blue whales weigh around 330,000 lbs – the equivalent of around 24 elephants. You would need two Boeing 747s to compete with that!
The blue whale is the largest creature on earth but one of the most harmless.
Like all the largest whales, its diet comprises some of the tiniest organisms on earth.
All the largest whales have a vital role to play in our ocean’s ecosystems, moving iron and other important nutrients up from the deep waters.
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Once at the surface, these nutrients are available to zooplankton and other tiny organisms feeding the great whales.
International legal protection has helped some of our large whales to recover from the impact of commercial whaling.
Still, climate change could cause their populations to decline again without careful management.
Nicky is a British adventurer and animal lover who spends her time exploring the natural world and writing about her experiences. Whether on horseback, underwater, running, hiking or just standing with a fishing rod in hand, she embraces everything her adopted home of South Africa has to offer.