Baleen whales are large marine mammals and cetaceans consisting 12 species split between four families: Balaenidae (right whales), Balaenopteridae (rorquals), Cetotheriidae (pygmy right whale), and Eschrichtiidae (gray whale). Baleen whales range in size from the 20 ft (6 m) and 6,600 lb (3,000 kg) pygmy right whale to the 112 ft (34 m) and 190 t (210 short tons) blue whale, which is also the largest creature on earth. Despite their enormous size baleen whales have the capability to swim very fast, with the fastest able to travel at 23 miles per hour (37 km/h).

Size comparison between different baleen whale species. (source-wikimedia)

The name Baleen Whale originates from the long plates of which hang in a rows from their upper jaws.  Baleen plates are strong and flexible. These plates are made of keratin, which is the same material found in our fingernails and our hair. The baleen plates overtime are worn down by the whale’s tongue, but grow back like fingernails. Whales have hundreds of baleen plates. For example, the humpback whale has 400 baleen plates, each of which is 25 inches to 30 inches long (64 cm to 76 cm), 13 inches (33 cm) wide and less than 0.2 inches (0.5 cm) thick.

 

Threats

During the 19th and 20th century whales were hunted commercially for their whalebone (baleen) and oil. The whalebone was used in fashion to make women’s corsets, buggy whips, and umbrella ribs.

Out of all human-related deaths of the Northern Right Whales, about 90% occur by collision with a ship or similar vessel impacts. The whales that are close to the surface cannot always be seen from the ship.

Sadly, the impact does not always kill the whale immediately, leaving it to die a slowly and painfully. Improved sonar detection equipment is one way in which ships can prevent these accidents from occurring. Another method to prevent collisions,  vessels could be restricted from entering waters in which pods of whales are known to be at a particular time.

By-Catch
One of the major problems facing whales today is the fishing industry and its catching methods. All too often, nets are released into the water with the main aim of catching fish. require fresh air to breathe and survive, Panicked and exhausted, they soon suffocate and die. Because this is a major threat to the species, the fishing industry in certain areas has been known to falsify the number of whales caught as a means of protecting their fishing rights.

Hunting

Still a major problem today it has threatened whales for centuries, as they are in high demand for their meat, blubber and hide. During the late 19th century and early 20th century, many species were almost wiped out due to hunting. Their products were used for lubrication, lamp oil, cosmetics and food. Today, whale hunting is banned in many places in the world, but continues to be a major problem (whether legally or illegally). There are a few countries such as Iceland, Japan, Norway which are pro whaling communities, as they wish to lift the ban on certain whale species for hunting. Norway registered an open objection to the whaling commission so are not subject or bound to its regulations. Minke whales are the only legally hunted whale species in Norway with catch reports fluctuating from 487 to 592 within a 7 year period ( 2000-2007).

Some of the most endangered whale species (for these various reasons) are:

  • Bowhead Whales
  • Grey Whales
  • Right Whales
  • Sei Whales
  • Humpback Whales
  • Sperm Whales
  • Narwhals

Food source

Baleen whales strain huge volumes of ocean water through their baleen plates to capture food: tons of krill, other zooplankton, crustaceans, and small fish. The right whales filter feed by skimming the water, which involves swimming along the surface of the water with an open mouth. As the whale swims, in comes water rich with the plankton that live on the ocean’s surface.

Image result for krill
magnified image of Krill the food source of Baleen whales. (source-wikimedia)

Rorqual whales are gulpers, which means they take big swallows, find the food and filter out all the excess water. Think about the biggest swig of soda you’ve ever taken — it would be no match for the rorqual whales. They take the expression “open wide” to a new level with their throat grooves. These expandable pieces of skin get so big that rorquals can take in about 18,000 gallons (68,137 liters) of water, a volume equal to a school bus.

Gray whales have a peculiar method of feeding, they swim on their sides against the bottom of the ocean, consuming mud, dirt and silt. They can spend up to 20 hours a day feeding and from the mud they eat and filter, small crustaceans through its baleen.

Video clip of a blue whale feeding on a large swarm of Krill. sourced from Youtube.

Conversation programs

Combating the threats and  making communities aware of the impacts which still carry out whale hunting, are a number of organisations, such as Atlantic Whale Foundation (AWF) this charitable organisation aims to spread awareness of the dangers of boat collisions, and regularly does research into whale and boat interactions. Another organisation that is set on informing communities about the impacts of whaling is the Whaling and Dolphin conservation group. This group is actively fighting to stop whaling in Europe and Japan, by calling for the EU to ban the transit of whale meat through its port and continuing to expose illegal sales of whale meat and their products. They also have an education program for local communities to set up whale watching operations as a more sustainable and financially stable way of creating income, rather than killing whale for revenue.

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