What do you know about whales and dolphins? Do you know what the biggest animal ever to live on our planet is? It’s bigger than an elephant. Bigger than a T-Rex. It’s even bigger than the biggest known dinosaur, Argentinosaurus (if you’re measuring by weight). And it’s alive right now.
But it doesn’t walk the earth, it swims in the ocean! It’s a blue whale! These animals can be over 100 feet long, and weigh about 200 tons. Its heart is the size of a small car!
I’ve been pretty fortunate to be close to some of these amazing animals. Once, when I was paddleboarding with my son, a mother and baby humpback whale were playing in the water not far from us. Another time, we were snorkeling and could hear their songs in the water all around us. We’ve also been able to see them up close during boat rides.
Whales and dolphins have captivated people for thousands of years. Blue whales usually stay in deeper water, but dolphins often play and jump near the shore, and you don’t have to go too far out in a boat in many areas to glimpse a whale. Their size, power, and, in some cases, friendly nature, seem to pique our curiosity. There are cases of whales and dolphins warning people of danger, even saving their lives. And for thousands of years, we’ve watched and wondered about these magnificent creatures.
Whales and Dolphins in Stories
If you’ve been listening for a while, it probably won’t surprise you to find out that people have been telling each other stories about whales and dolphins for thousands of years. The Maori, the native people of New Zealand, consider whales to be kaitiaki, or guides for sailors. In fact, a whale even played a part in helping them find their homeland! According to Maori legend, Paikea was the favorite son of his father, the chief of their tribe in what is now the Cook Islands in the South Pacific Ocean. Paikea’s brothers were jealous of him, and one night he overheard them plotting to drown him when he went out fishing the next day. Knowing of the plot, he was able to get away in his canoe, but he ended up drifting at sea, not knowing which direction to go to get back. As Paikea’s hope began to die, a whale picked him up and carried him all the way to New Zealand! There, he started his own settlement and became a beloved leader. The movie Whale Rider follows a modern Maori girl who wants to be the chief of her tribe, following in her grandfather’s footsteps. When she is told a girl can’t become chief, she decides to prove herself by riding a whale, just like Paikea.
Arctic Tribes and Whales
Various arctic tribes in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and elsewhere, consider whales to be symbols of their way of life. They carve them into totem poles and have a long tradition of hunting them using traditional tools and weapons. Unlike the whaling industry that grew later, these hunters only take the small number of whales that the tribe will be able to use.
Ancient Greeks and Dolphins
The Ancient Greeks were fascinated by dolphins. Their legends told of dolphins saving people lost at sea by riding them to shore. Ancient coins even show people riding dolphins. Dolphins were even said to have led a group of priests to the spot where they would set up one of most important religious sites in Ancient Greece, the Oracle at Delphi.
Jonah and the Whale
And of course, there’s the story of Jonah and the Whale in the bible. But did you know that this story is not only in the Christian Old Testament, but also the Jewish Torah and the Muslim Koran? In all three stories, Jonah disobeys God’s command to go into a city to preach about him. He boards a boat to run away, but soon the boat is caught in a storm. The sailors on the ship suspect that Jonah’s god is angry at him and causing the storm, so they throw him overboard. Soon, a huge whale swallows him, takes him all the way to the city where god wanted him to go, and spits him out on the shore.
Although whales and dolphins are the helpers and even heroes of many folk stories, people haven’t always been heroes to them. Humans began hunting whales over 8,000 years ago. For people who lived near coastlines, they were a valuable source of food – one whale could feed a lot of people after all! Traditional hunting like this didn’t endanger whales, or bring them close to a point where there wouldn’t be any left. For a long time, people hunted from small boats with simple weapons, and took only the few whales they could use.
But by the 17th century, things were changing. Whaling, as whale-hunting was called, was becoming more sophisticated and more organized. And people were making a lot more money from it. Food wasn’t the main goal – people had found many uses for different parts of whales. The oil in the whale’s body could be used to lubricate machinery, and make oil lamps, candles, and soap. Sperm whales were especially valued: their bulbous heads alone could contain over 6 thousand pounds of oil! Baleen – the fibery material in many whales’ mouths that helps them catch their dinner of tiny krill – was lightweight and flexible, but strong. People used it to make the frames of umbrellas, mattress springs, and horse whips.
Hunting the biggest creatures on Earth could be dangerous. Men would set out from a whaling ship in small rowboats, armed with harpoons that they would hurl by hand at these gigantic animals. Of course, most creatures do what they can to avoid being killed, and whales are no different. They could ram into the side of the boat or even lift the smaller boats out of the water by swimming up under them. Herman Melville based his famous novel, Moby Dick, on a real whaling voyage that ended tragically for the crew when a sperm whale attacked the ship, sinking it. In the novel, Melville imagines Captain Ahab, a whaler obsessed with getting revenge on the “white whale”, Moby Dick, who long ago bit off his leg. Ahab becomes so dangerously obsessed that he ends up losing his ship, his crew, and his life to the whale.
But whaling was big business in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century. As I mentioned, whale oil and baleen had many uses, so whalers could make a lot of money. And, as time went on, people invented more sophisticated tools for hunting whales. By the early 20th century, some species of whale were getting dangerously close to becoming extinct. But technology kept getting better (or worse, if you think about it from the whale’s perspective). People invented harpoon guns, and harpoons that would explode when they hit the whale. They began using high-tech electronics and helicopters to track the whales.
Whales can Sing?
People began to question whether we should be hunting whales at all by the middle of the century. Some species were close to extinction – there were so few left that scientists warned that soon, there wouldn’t be any. Scientists also began to realize that whales are intelligent and complex. Many live in groups and cooperate with each other to hunt and stay safe. They communicate with clicks, chirps and, in some cases, whole songs! A Navy engineer named Frank Watlington first recorded the songs of humpback whales in the 1960s. He shared these recordings with some friends who were biologists, Roger and Katharine Payne. The group was so astounded by the songs, they wanted people to appreciate how amazing and complex these creatures are. So they decided to release an album of whale songs! People loved the whale songs – they’re actually very relaxing and melodic, and the record was a hit! In fact, one of the recordings was sent into space on a probe called Voyager – so someday in the far-off future, aliens might even be able to appreciate these gifted whale vocalists.
Not only did people like listening to the whales, the record inspired many people to start caring about whales. They began to realize that if we kept hunting them, we’d lose these amazing creatures. People began to organize and protest commercial whaling. Some even went out on boats, trying to get between whaling ships and the whales they were hunting. The movement even inspired a science fiction movie, Star Trek IV, where space travelers go back in time to the 20th century to rescue a pair of humpback whales who can save the future Earth.
Freeing the Whales
Popular culture had an impact in this case. Commercial whaling was finally banned in 1986. Not all countries agreed to the ban, but most did. Japan, Iceland, and Norway kept hunting whales, though Iceland has pledged to stop by 2024.
But by this time, some whales faced a different kind of mistreatment. Many orcas and dolphins were used for entertainment at water parks around the world. Some were well-treated, but many weren’t. They were often kept in tanks that were too small, and water that was too hot or not salty enough, like the ocean water they normally live in. This made many whales sick. Again, it was pop culture, a movie that spurred change. The movie Free Willy came out in 1993. In it, a lonely boy befriends a captive orca named Willy. He realizes that Willy is sick and wants to live free in the ocean.
The movie sends the message that these majestic creatures belong in the wild, but the orca actor, Keiko, who starred in the movie was anything but free. In fact, Keiko lived in a too-small, too-hot tank in a Mexico City marine park, and actually was sick. Fans of the movie were outraged and wrote letters and raised funds to help free the real Willy. Finally, five years after the movie came out, Keiko was released into the wild in Iceland. He was fitted with a tracking device, and lived until 2003, or about 25 years old. Wild male orcas often live up to 35 years, but Keiko was already in poor health and probably not well-prepared to live in the wild. Today, dozens of orcas are still held in captivity. They often suffer from health problems, and don’t live as long as their wild cousins.
Watching Whales and Dolphins
The best way to see whales today is in the wild! Many organizations offer whale watching trips that let humans see whales in their natural habitat. You go out in a boat to an area where wild whales usually hang out and wait for them to show themselves. Sometimes you see just glimpses of backs and tails as they surface for air. Watching the water spout from their blowholes is fun!, But other times you’ll see them breaching or rolling in the water, playing and showing off. If you find yourself near the ocean, you can also just sit and look out at the water. If you’re patient and stay long enough, you might see a group of dolphins, or pod, jumping and playing offshore. Be sure to bring a camera and binoculars! That way, both you and the creatures you’re watching can enjoy the experience.
Gish, Melissa. (2012) Whales. Creative Education. Mankato, MN.
Sandstrom, Donna. (2021) Orca Rescue! The True Story of an Orphaned Orca Named Springer. Kids Can Press. Toronto.