Why whales make explosive jumps out of water?

A picture of a whale jumping out of the water.

The ocean surface is smooth and tranquil. Suddenly, there is an explosion of water and spray!

A 40-ton black beast makes what appears to be an abortive launch into flight.

The creature falters for a moment at the peak of its upward thrust.

Then, with a resounding crash, it disappears below the surface of the water.

For those who witness this, the impression left on them is lasting.

They have privileged to witness one of the largest of earth’s creatures, the whale, rear itself above the water to catch a breath of air.

For many hundreds of years man has marveled at the whale, believing at one time that its appearances near coasts or on shores were portents heralding great events.

While to a great extent superstitions concerning the whale have disappeared, awe and amazement have not.

A closer look at this giant’s form and habits will show why.

What Is a Whale?


A whale is not a fish, but a mammal that is warm-blooded.

It breathes air, suckles its young and even has some of the external hairs so characteristic of mammals.

However, the only time a whale breaks the water’s surface is to exhale a blast of steamy breath, known as the blow, and to inhale more life-sustaining air.

Unlike other marine mammals, whales cannot lounge around shorelines.

For some of the ‘great whales’ to be beached even temporarily means certain death.

Without water to support such a huge bulk, their ribs collapse and death occurs by suffocation.

Whales are divided into two basic groups, the baleen whales (with whalebones, rather than teeth) and the toothed whales.

Perhaps the best known of the baleen group is the giant blue whale, spanning a length of some 100 feet (30 m) and weighing up to 134 tons.

Says the book Whales, by E. J. Slijper, that weight is equivalent to four brontosaurs or 30 elephants, or 200 cows, or 1,600 men!

Certainly this monarch of the deep is the largest creature, living or dead, ever known to move upon planet Earth.

The baleen or whalebone itself is a horny growth, edged with frayed bristles that hang from the whale’s upper jaw.

It is made of a substance similar to our own hair and nails and is constantly growing and being worn away.

A row of these long tapered baleen plates on each side of the mouth creates a large sieve that separates plankton, a major part of the diet for this type of whale, from tremendous quantities of water.

On the other hand, toothed whales are not equipped to catch the tiny plankton.

Instead, they prey primarily on fish, squid and other seagoing mammals.

Toothed whales range in size from the four-foot (1.2-m) long porpoise through the well-known dolphins and killer whales right up to the 60-foot (18-m) long sperm whale.

Amazing Abilities


At first it appeared that the whale’s ability as a swimmer ran counter to physical law.

How can such a huge creature plow through the ocean at speeds rivaling a nuclear-powered submarine?

Investigations have shown that, unlike the rigid submarine, a whale’s body is flexible.

A layer of blubber thwarts friction and reduces turbulence to a minimum.

Another endowment of the whale is its ability to produce an array of noises ranging from creaks and squeaks to chirps and shrill whistles.

Use of these sounds appear to be twofold: they help to keep the family groups, known as pods, together, and also are a form of sonar, enabling the whale to locate food and “see” in the dark.

Whaling


The gigantic bodies of whales have long been viewed as enormous bags of “goodies.”

Originally people sought the flesh as food and the blubber for oil.

Nowadays people produce from whale carcasses such things as automatic transmission fluid, candles, fertilizer and, yes, even lipstick.

Will the Whale Survive?


What will be the whale’s future? Will it become extinct?

Some efforts have been made to ensure the survival of whales. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is a voluntary body made up of representatives of 17 whaling nations.

Since 1946 the Commission has placed bans and quotas on catching various species.

But its effectiveness and true loyalties have come under fire from conservation groups.

Whether efforts to preserve the whale population will succeed remains to be seen.