Whales play a vital role in our marine ecosystems and continue to do so even after their lives have ended.
Do whales die of old age? Whales die for a variety of reasons, including old age. If they fail to reach the surface to breathe, they may even drown.
A whale that gets caught in commercial fishing nets, for instance, may be unable to surface. As a result, it can’t get the oxygen it needs and will eventually drown.
Similarly, a beached whale could drown when the tide starts to rise.
If the water’s deep enough to cover the blowhole but insufficient for the whale to swim away, water can fill the lungs, causing the whale to drown.
As a rule, whales are incredibly hardy creatures, capable of living long and healthy.
Researchers have found that whales, like sharks, are “highly resistant to cancer, a disease that is strongly related to aging.”
Unlike humans, they also show few metabolic changes as they age, which means their internal organs keep functioning efficiently throughout their long lives.
Some believe whales could hold the secret to growing old gracefully.
How Old do Whales Get?
Whales can die of old age eventually, but it takes a long time for that to happen, and there are usually some other factors involved.
The smaller species of whale appear to have the shortest lifespans. The dwarf sperm whale, for example, is smaller than a dolphin and lives for just over 20 years.
Beluga whales are a little bigger than dwarf sperm whales, measuring around 18 feet long compared to the dwarf sperm whale’s nine.
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They also live a fair bit longer, averaging between 35 and 50 years. Larger baleen whales die of old age only once they hit their 50s or 60s.
The smallest of the baleen whales, the minke, lives to around 50, while gray whales live to up to 60.
As they increase in size, whales live for even longer. Both the blue and humpback whales can survive well into their 80s, but the longest living is the bowhead whale.
Bowhead whales are the longest living marine mammals. Their lifespan ranges between 100 and 200 years.
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Scientists were able to establish the age of the bowhead whale by analyzing the remains of a harpoon lodged in the shoulder of a bowhead whale.
An Alaskan Indigenous hunting party captured the whale and arranged for the fragment to be sent to a lab. The analysis revealed that the harpoon dated back some 130 years!
How Do Whales Die Naturally?
It’s relatively rare for a whale to die a natural death, but when they do, it’s usually because of one of the following five causes:
Every year, around 2,000 marine mammals wash ashore. This phenomenon, known as cetacean stranding or beaching, happens for many reasons.
Some scientists, including Kevin Robinson, director of the Cetacean Research & Rescue Unit, believe there are “probably as many reasons for why whales and dolphins strand as there are strandings themselves.”
Injured or dead animals may be driven ashore by tides and prevailing winds. Healthy individuals may stray too far inland on a high tide and get caught out when the water suddenly recedes.
This type of beaching is most likely to affect whales that are compromised in some way.
Dan Jarvic of the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, says a beached whale could be “sick or injured, senile, lost, [or] unable to feed.”
Once on land, the whales’ massive bodies literally crush their internal organs, causing them to suffocate.
On occasions, seemingly healthy whales become beached or even beach themselves.
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This phenomenon is not fully understood but appears more prevalent in “highly social species such as pilot and melon-headed whales.”
Scientists believe this is due to these whales having a powerful herding instinct that prevents them from leaving any member of the group.
Therefore, on occasions, the entire group may strand themselves “while trying to support a distressed individual.”
Some stranded or beached whales end up on beaches due to starvation or malnutrition. In 2019, gray whales in the eastern North Pacific started dying in “unusual numbers.”
Scientists call this an “unusual mortality event” or UME.
Further investigation suggested that starvation might be the cause.
Using drones to measure the length and width of gray whales, the Laguna San Ignacio Ecosystem Science Program “found a marked decline in the body condition of juvenile and adult gray whales.”
Researchers involved with the program believe this could be because the gray whales are leaving their summer feeding grounds “in a poor nutritional state.”
As a result, they lack the energy reserves needed to see them through the winter.
A lack of prey availability could explain the phenomenon, which would link the great whales’ deaths to the “warming of Arctic waters as a result of natural and/or human-induced climate change.”
Although whales are resistant to many diseases, they can still contract both infectious and non-infectious diseases.
Viruses, illnesses, and diseases can affect both wild cetaceans and their captive relatives.
Meningitis and encephalitis are, for example, “among the leading known natural causes of death in stranded cetaceans.”
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In 1988, a series of mass mortalities in Northwestern Europe led to the discovery of cetacean morbilliviruses.
In humans, morbillivirus are most commonly associated with measles. In cetaceans, they cause pneumonia and encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain.
While not always fatal, morbillivirus is highly contagious and spread quickly through a pod of whales, exposing them to potentially fatal complications and secondary infections.
Morbiliviruses can be transmitted through the inhalation of infected respiratory particles or via direct contact between aquatic animals.
Viruses aren’t the only threat to the whale either. Baleen whales suffering from a heavy burden of internal parasites can have a “chronic inflammatory reaction… causing vascular occlusion and kidney failure.”
This systemic disease is caused by a type of roundworm known as the Crassicauda boopis condition and affects all the larger baleen whales, including blue whales, fin whales, and humpbacks.
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There are few natural predators large enough to take on the biggest whales, although the killer whale is always willing to give it its best shot.
A few years ago, a pod of 12 to 14 killer whales managed to kill an adult blue whale in what scientists believe was the first-ever documented attack.
The tenacious orca will take on almost any marine mammal, including many species of whales. It’s even been known to give the great white shark a run for its money!
Polar bears will occasionally stray from their usual diet of seals to sample the thick blubber of the Belguha whale or try their luck against the toothed narwhal.
There’s also evidence of some of the larger shark species taking down humpback whales.
NOAA’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and the Marine Mammal Response Network saw a group of around 25 tiger sharks attacking an ailing humpback whale in 2006.
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More recently, a great white shark was filmed drowning a juvenile humpback by dragging it underwater.
Despite these powerful predators, humans have more whale deaths on their hands than any other species.
In the past, hunting and whaling operations decimated the world’s whale population. These days, there are a host of other threats, including ship strikes, pollution, and global warming.
Of these, ship strikes pose a major threat. Research published last year by the non-profit organization Friend of the Sea suggested that “ship strikes kill more than 20,000 whales every year.”
In some key areas, endangered whale species like the blue and right whales are threatened by massive ships almost daily, with scientists estimating that “vessel strikes cause roughly a third of all right whale deaths.”
Another major threat is entanglement in fishing nets and lines, although this tends to affect smaller cetaceans more than the larger baleen whales.
Earlier this year, however, a juvenile humpback was seen “trailing fishing gear and several buoys that had become wrapped around the fluke.”
The chances of a whale surviving such an incident are slim. The lines act as a type of anchor which makes it difficult for the whale to move to the water’s surface to breathe.
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Unless it manages to free itself, entangled whales suffocate and eventually sink.
Researchers believe that simple modifications could combat this problem.
Simon Miller of the Australian Marine Conservation Society explained, “Whale entanglement can be avoided to an extent by not setting high-risk fishing gear like lobster pots with long head ropes or gillnets in the areas through which humpbacks are known to migrate and congregate.”
What Happens to Whales When They Get Old?
It seems unlikely that whales die of old age. An elderly whale is more likely to become too weak to surface frequently enough to breathe, causing it to suffocate or drown.
It’s, therefore, more likely that drowning is the actual cause of death rather than old age itself.
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The immune system may weaken towards the end of a whale’s lifespan, allowing infection to set in.
Similarly, the internal organs may start to fail, even though the whale’s metabolism remains stable throughout its life.
However, those are only theories as very little is known about precisely what causes an elderly whale to die.
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What Happens When Whales Die?
Regardless of how a whale dies, its body remains after its life is over for a long time.
A dead cetacean may wash up onto shore or float for a while at the water’s surface before sinking to the ocean floor.
Wherever the body ends up, the whale plays an important role in its surrounding ecosystem.
Whale bodies provide food for scavengers on the beach, including bears, seabirds, and even wolves.
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In the ocean, the whale’s body supplies almost the entire food chain.
Soon after death, the decomposition process causes gas build in the whale’s body. This enables it to float to the surface of the water, where apex predators like sharks, fish, seabirds, and other aquatic mammals happily tuck in.
As those gases disperse, the rest of the whale sinks to the ocean floor, where it becomes food for various bottom-dwellers, including crabs, hagfish, and sleeper sharks.
Focusing on the muscles and thick blubber, these animals can feed for “up to two years during this initial scavenging stage.”
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Once there are just a few scraps of muscle and blubber left, sea snails, bristle worms, and shrimp move in, finishing whatever’s left and eating organic matter emitted by the carcass.
Next up are the zombie worms that specialize in breaking down bone.
Also known as bone worms, they push oxygen into the bones to speed up the process of decay. Even then, it can take them a decade to consume the last remains of the whale.
Why Shouldn’t You Stand Near a Dead Whale?
A few years ago, a large humpback whale was washed up on the beach by a small coastal village called Haga Haga in South Africa.
It had already been decomposing for a while by the time I got there, and the smell was horrific!
While that’s one very valid reason for not standing near a dead whale, there’s a much more vital one that you ought to be aware of.
As we mentioned earlier, the whale’s body fills with gases during some of the first stages of decomposition.
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This so-called bloat stage takes place early on and produces gases like ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and methane.
Warmed by the sun, the gases in a beached whale’s body start to expand, and if they have nowhere else to go, build up inside the carcass, causing it to inflate.
The whale’s thick skin and blubber prevent the body from over-inflating so the pressure builds up inside. Once it gets high enough, it can cause the whale to explode.
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According to scientists, whale explosions are unlikely, but there have been a few nasty incidents to prove that it is possible.
In 2004, a decomposing sperm whale exploded in Taiwan. Unfortunately, it was being transported through a crowded urban area at the time, and showered cars and shops with blood and internal organs.
A marine biologist recently hit a gas pocket while dissecting a sperm whale carcass in the Faroe Islands.
The whale promptly exploded, causing the marine biologist to flee the scene as quickly as possible!
Many whales die from unnatural causes, such as pollution, ship strikes, and hunting. Global warming also puts them in danger of losing both habitat and feeding grounds.
Among the longest-living mammals on earth, whales don’t appear to age similarly to humans. Like the bowhead whale, some can live for over a hundred years.
Despite their longevity and disease resistance, the worldwide population of whales is struggling to coexist with humans.
Changing our approach to marine activities, such as shipping and fishing, could give these fascinating marine animals a better chance of survival.
In turn, that would allow us to learn more about the whale’s secret to growing old gracefully.
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.