Arctic whale facts

Fun facts about whales that we see in the arctic

Whales are mammals like us but they have some pretty special adaptations that make them masters of their ocean world.

How do whales hold their breath for 75 minutes?

Fin whale exhales after diving, Norway

Fin whale exhales after diving, Norway

As mammals like us, all whales need to breath air. While I find myself surfacing, gasping for air after just a few seconds meters underwater, whales can stay below the surface for up to 75 minutes. Just how do they manage to do this? The answer is with some special breathing adaptations. When a whale surfaces and gives that explosive out breath that we see as the blow, that is up to 15,000L of air being exchanged, (over 1000 times what you or I might do). They achieve this in part by using 90% of their massive lung capacity, we might typically use 15%. Whales can use the air more efficiently than humans too, extracting 10% of the oxygen each breath contains which is more than double the amount that we can utilise.

 

Why don’t whales get the bends?

Fin whale surfacing from a dive

Fin whale surfacing from a dive

Whales dive to amazing depths, the Narwhal can dive to 1500m and the sperm whale, master of deep diving has been known to reach 3000m. Divers know well the physiological challenges that deep diving presents. At depth, nitrogen gas bubbles can dissolve in the blood stream causing what divers refer to as the bends. So why don’t whales get the bends? Rather than relying on oxygen in the air held in their lungs, whales pre-oxygenate before a dive, storing oxygen in myoglobin cells within their muscles. In deep dives the pressure from the water causes the whale’s lungs to collapse, pushing the remaining air into it’s nasal cavities where nitrogen can not be absorbed, preventing the whale from getting the bends.

 

How do whales feed their young underwater?

Pilot whales approaching ‘Narwhal"‘

Pilot whales approaching ‘Narwhal"‘

Whales are mammals and so the mother feeds their young with milk. But whales have the extra challenge of doing this underwater. The young calf hasn’t developed the ability to hold it’s breath for long periods yet so the mother has a clever trick to give the calf a helping hand. Rather than the calf having to do all of the work of suckling, specially adapted muscles in the mother’s body allow her to ‘squirt’ the milk to the calf, reducing the calf’s energy expenditure and allowing it to return to the surface to breathe sooner.

 

Why belugas are special whales

Sailing boat with beluga whales

Sailing boat with beluga whales

Seeing a pod of belugas surrounding Narwhal was a very special moment for me. But it turns out that belugas are quite special whales. Unique-beluga facts - Beluga are the only whale that has unfused cervical vertebra, allowing it to turn and nod it’s head.

Beluga lack a dorsal fin so that they can swim and feed underneath the pack ice.

They are the only whale that can change facial expression, being able to make on O shape with their mouths.

They have a very pronounced ‘melon’ shape at the front of their head which helps with acts as an audio receiver, probably link to the fact that they are one of the most vocal of the whales. 

 

Why do whales migrate to the arctic?

Humpback whale in Kongsfjord, Svalbard

Humpback whale in Kongsfjord, Svalbard

Humpback whales migrate up to 5000 miles. The whales that we see around Svalbard, have travelled up from their wintering and breeding grounds near the equator. Why make such a long journey to the cold waters of the arctic? It is the coldness of the water that holds the key. Cold water can hold more oxygen and so support more life. Making the arctic waters an abundant food source. Humpback whales feed by using bubble netting, making a ring of bubbles around a shoal of fish, before diving through the middle of the net to catch a mouthful of fish.

The distinctive black and white markings on a humpback whale’s pectoral fins and tail fluke are as unique as a finger print. This enable scientists to recognise individual animals and learn about their movements and migrations.

We have just a couple of spots available on our marine mammal surveying and ocean clean up expeditions next year. Find out how you can get on board.