Natural Histories

photograph of a Sunda Pangolin




The body of a whale resembles the shape of a streamlined fish while the forelimbs (flippers) are paddle-shaped. The tail fins, called flukes, are also paddle-shaped to propel the whales through the water. Some species of whale have a dorsal fin, which is a fin located on the back. All whales have a blowhole, located on top of the head. Blowholes are used to breathe air when whales reach the water’s surface. The length and weight of whales vary depending on the species, the largest being the blue whale measuring 110 feet long and weighing 150 tons. Whales are divided into two suborders including baleen and toothed whales. Baleen whales have a comb-like fringe (called baleen) on the upper jaw. Baleen whales tend to be larger than toothed whales. Toothed whales have teeth. Baleen whales have two blowholes and toothed whales only have one.


Whales live in all of the world’s oceans. The range of each whale varies depending on the species.

Feeding Behavior and Diet

Baleen whales filter plankton, small fish and crustaceans through the baleen of the upper jaw. Toothed whales feed on fish, squid, other whales and marine mammals. Specific diets can range depending on the species of whale. Toothed whales tend to hunt together in groups, also called pods.


Whales are a warm-blooded mammal, which means that whales give live birth and produce milk to nurse their young. Toothed whales tend to share young-rearing duties. The mating season varies depending on the species of whale. The gestation period of a whale is generally 9-15 months, depending on the species. Few young are produced, usually only one calf (baby whale) is produced at a time. Young are nursed for one year and some species nurse their young for more than a year.

Months and Times of Activity

Many whale species, especially baleen species, migrate long distances each year from cold-water feeding grounds to warm-water breeding grounds. Some migrations are traveled as solitary individuals or within groups, also called pods. Some whale species jump high from the water, breaching, out of the water and landing back into the water.

Special Features, Stories, Relationships

•    Whales communicate by using body movement such as lifting their tail out of the water to slap the water’s surface as a warning of nearby danger. Lyrical sounds are also used as communication; these sounds can be very loud and heard for many miles.
•    Whales are conscious breathers, this means that they decide when to come to the surface and breathe.
•    The Blue Whale is the largest known mammal that has ever lived, measuring up to 110 feet long and weighing 150 tons.
•    Whales have a layer of fat called blubber, located under the skin. This fat is used as insulation in cold waters and also an energy reservoir.
•    To read legends featuring this animal go to;
•    Children’s book featuring this animal: Here Come the Humpbacks! By April Pulley Sayre


"Fact Sheet Whales, Basic Facts about Whales." Defenders of Wildlife. Defenders of Wildlife, 2013. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.