The whale is one of the most mysterious and majestic creatures ever to have graced the earth. As marine creatures that live in the depths of the ocean or the poles of the world, whales have not been well understood throughout the course of human history. Both feared and revered, they have become entrenched in human myth and folklore – think Moby Dick, and the tale of Jonah and the Whale in the Bible. Even today, some of their behaviours still baffle modern scientists.
As we come into the second half of the year in the Margaret River region, almost 35,000 whales are moving north along the coastline seeking warmer waters to breed in. In celebration of their annual pilgrimage, we’ve compiled this list of extraordinary facts to celebrate one of the world’s most mysterious species. Here are seven mysterious facts you didn’t know about whales.
Whales once lived on land
The first ‘whale’ was a wolf-sized four-legged mammal that lived on the edges of the ancient Tethys Sea around 50 million years ago, according to the Natural History Museum.
Indohyus, as scientists have called it, looked like a small deer, with four toes each ending in a small hoof. They spent most of their time wading in shallow water, feeding on algae and small fish. It inhabited the water in times of danger but came onto land to give birth and eat.
As a few million years passed, Indohyus began acquiring features better suited to life in the water, like webbed feet and a more streamlined, hairless shape. Eventually, it evolved into the whale and the hippopotamus.
Whales still have some traces of their evolutionary foray on land. Some species have tiny remnants of bone attached to their pelvis, an anatomical echo of their ancestors’ land adventures. Who knows where they will be roaming in another 50 million years?
The whale is the biggest mammal ever to have lived on Earth
The biggest species of whale, the Blue Whale, weighs up to 150 tonne and grows to 110 feet long. That’s heavier than a triple-trailer road-train, and almost as long.
Its heart is the size of a small car, its tongue weighs as much as an elephant, and you could pretty much swim through its blood vessels.
Baby blue whales need up to 240 litres of milk per day, and grow 90kg every day!
Whales are the only species, other than humans, believed to commit suicide
No one really knows for sure why whales sometimes strand themselves in huge numbers. It’s happened a couple of times in Margaret River, as recently as last year when 150 short-finned pilot whales stranded themselves at Boranup Beach in 2018, and back in 1986 at Augusta.
There are plenty of hypotheses, but one of the most common explanation shows that whales are strikingly similar to humans.
Pilot whales live in matrilineal communities: spending their lives in schools centred around the mothers and daughters of the pod. When a few members of the pod become sick or injured, it is believed the rest of the pod can strand themselves to stay in contact with their sick or injured companions. Still, no scientists know the answer for sure.
Male whales woo a female partner through song
Whales, particular humpbacks, produce otherworldly vocalisations that can be heard underwater for thousands of miles.
Their songs are made up of complex combinations of wails, howls, and cries that can continue for hours. They create these songs by pushing air around inside their heads, and amplify them through a blob of fat on their top jaw. These calls are some of the loudest of any creature on the planet.
Male whales will win over a mate by wooing them with the finest songs in whaledom.
Whales also use sound to hunt and work out where they are going
Whales navigate and hunt squid, fish, and octopus using a sophisticated sonar system – known by scientists as echolocation.
It works when by sending out a sound wave from the mouth or nose, and when the sound waves hit an object they produce echoes. The echo bounces off the object and returns to the whale’s ears. The whale listens to the echoes to figure out where the object is, how big it is, and its shape.
What a way to find a feed!
Whale poop is nature’s finest marine manure
Whales are the engineers of the marine ecosystem, and it’s all because of their poop.
Each day, a humpback whale eats up to a tonne of krill, which are very high in iron. When the whale digests this and returns it to the environment, it creates an iron rich fertiliser that helps to sustain a wealth of life.
Strangely, it is also highly sought after by designer brands, who use the poop to make perfume. A small lump of whale poop can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars on the market. Beware though, their bowel movements can be thirty metres wide.
The oceans off the Margaret River region are home to the largest number of humpback whales anywhere on the planet
These are some of the best places to watch them migrating past:
- Injidup Beach
- Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse
- Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse
- Foul Bay, Augusta
- Rabbit Hill lookout, Yallingup
- Sugarloaf Rock
Or you could jump on a whale watching charter boat and get in amongst the action.