Definitions

whale

whale

[hweyl, weyl]
whale, aquatic mammal of the order Cetacea, found in all oceans of the world. Members of this order vary greatly in size and include the largest animals that have ever lived. Cetaceans never leave the water, even to give birth. Although their ancestry has been much debated, DNA studies and skeletal evidence from extinct early whales indicate that whales evolved from the ancestors of artiodactyls, a group that includes hippopotamuses, cattle, swine, deer, and chevrotains; DNA evidence suggests that whales are most closely related to hippopotamuses.

Characteristics and Behavior

Like other mammals, whales breathe air, are warm-blooded, and produce milk to feed their young. Their adaptations for aquatic life include a streamlined form, nearly hairless skin, and an insulating layer of blubber, which can be as thick as 28 in. (70 cm) in some Arctic species. The forelimbs of whales are modified into flippers, and the hind legs are reduced to internal vestiges. Many species possess a dorsal fin. The tail is flattened into horizontal flukes and is used for propulsion. The head is very large, with a wide mouth and no external neck.

Whales have one or two nostril openings, called blowholes, located far back on the top of the head; the nostril valves close and the lungs compress when the whale dives. Most whales must surface every 3 to 20 min to breathe, but some, like the sperm whale, can remain submerged for more than an hour. Spouting occurs when the whale surfaces and clears water from its blowhole along with any moisture trapped in its air passages. The shape of the spout is characteristic of each type of large whale. Whales have small eyes, designed to withstand great pressures, and most species have good vision. Their hearing is also excellent. Many cetaceans have highly convoluted brains larger than those of humans, and whales are believed to be extremely intelligent.

Most large whales travel in small schools, or pods, but some, like the fin whale, swim alone or in pairs; small cetaceans form schools of up to several thousand individuals. Most large whales are found in open ocean, where they migrate thousands of miles between feeding and breeding grounds. Dolphins frequently live in coastal waters. A few dolphin species are found in tropical rivers. Females of most species give birth to a single calf every two to three years. Gestation periods range from 9.5 to 17 months. The newborn calf is pushed to the surface by the mother or by another adult; it is able to swim almost immediately and is nursed for 6 to 12 months. Some large whales are believed to have lived 100 years or more in the wild.

Types of Whales

There are two major groups of whales—the toothed whales (suborder Odontoceti) and the toothless baleen whales (suborder Mysticeti).

Toothed Whales

Toothed whales include two families that are widely distributed, the beaked and bottlenose whales (family Ziphiidae) and the sperm whale, or cachalot (family Physeteridae; DNA studies suggest, however, that it is more closely related to baleen whales); the beluga, or white whale, and the narwhal (family Monodontidae), small polar whales with no dorsal fin and only a few teeth; the river dolphins (family Platanispidae), which inhabit muddy rivers of India and South America; and several families better known as ocean dolphins and porpoises. The killer whale and pilot whale are types of dolphin. The white whale Moby-Dick, of Herman Melville's novel, was not a beluga but a sperm whale with prominent white features.

Toothed whales range in length from 4 to 60 ft (1.3-18.5 m). They catch fast-moving prey, like fish or squid. Many species use echolocation (sonar) for underwater navigation and hunting. They have a single blowhole and a wide throat to accommodate large prey. Some of the larger ones, like the sperm whale, can dive as deep as 1 mi (1.6 km).

Toothless Whales

There are three families of baleen whales: the right whale family (Balaenidae), including the bowhead, or Greenland whale; the gray whale family (Eschrichtidae), with a single species (Eschrichtius robustus) found in the N Pacific Ocean; and the rorqual family (Balaenopteridae). Rorquals, the most familiar of the large whales, have large, pouchlike throats with furrows running from mouth to belly. The family includes the humpback whale, the sei whale, the minke whale, the Bryde's whale, the fin whale (or common rorqual), and the blue whale, which can grow to a length of 100 ft (30 m) and a weight of 150 tons.

Baleen whales are large species, usually over 33 ft (10 m) long. They are filter feeders, living on shrimplike krill, plankton, and small fish. They lack teeth but have brushlike sheets of a horny material called baleen, or whalebone, edging the roof of the mouth. With these strainers and their enormous tongues, tons of food can be separated from seawater. Baleen whales have narrow throats and paired blowholes. Male humpbacks produce a repeated pattern of sounds called a song during the mating season; the purpose is not clear, as all males in a group sing basically the same song.

Whaling

All species of large whales have been drastically reduced in numbers by centuries of intensive whaling. An indefinite ban by the International Whaling Commission on commercial whaling of all large whales gradually went into effect following the 1984-85 season, and large portions of ocean have been designated whale sanctuaries. With these and various other protective efforts, some species have begun to return to acceptable numbers, but others, especially the right and blue whales, are still rare and endangered. After decades of protection the number of E Pacific gray whales seems to have returned to its estimated prewhaling level. Only the small minke whale exists in populations great enough for sustainable whaling to be considered. Whale products include whale oil, sperm oil, spermaceti, ambergris, and whalebone, as well as meat, bone meal, and liver oil. Natural and synthetic materials have replaced all whale products in the United States. See separate entry on whaling for more information.

Classification

Whales are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Cetacea.

Bibliography

See R. Ellis, The Book of Whales (1980) and Dolphins and Porpoises (1989); L. Watson, Sea Guide to Whales of the World (1981).

or white whale

Beluga, or white whale (Delphinapterus leucas).

Species (Delphinapterus leucas) of whale found in the Arctic Ocean and adjacent seas, in both deep offshore and coastal waters. It may also enter rivers that empty into far northern seas. A toothed whale with a rounded forehead and no dorsal fin, the beluga is about 13 ft (4 m) long. Born dark blue-gray or blackish, it fades to white or cream at 4–5 years of age. It feeds on fish, cephalopods, and crustaceans and usually lives in groups of five to 10. It has been hunted commercially for its oil, hide, and flesh, and is used in the Arctic as food for humans and dogs.

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Any of about 13 species of cetaceans in the suborder Mysticeti. They are distinguished by a specialized feeding structure, the baleen, which strains plankton and small crustaceans from the water. It consists of two horny plates attached to the roof of the mouth. Each plate (as long as 12 ft, or 3.6 m, in the right whale) is composed of parallel slats with fringes that mat together to form a sieve. Other baleen whales are the blue, fin, gray, humpback, and sei whales and the rorqual. Baleen was once used for corset stays and is still used in some industrial brushes.

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Species (Rhincodon typus) of gigantic but harmless shark found worldwide but mainly in the tropics. The largest of living fishes, it often grows to about 30 ft (9 m) long and may reach twice that size. It is gray or brown with a pale undersurface and is distinctively marked with small spots and narrow vertical lines of yellow or white. It has tiny teeth, and eats plankton and small fishes. A sluggish animal, it generally swims slowly near the surface and has been hit by ships.

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Any of dozens of species of exclusively aquatic mammals found in oceans, seas, rivers, and estuaries worldwide but especially numerous in the Antarctic Ocean. Whales are commonly distinguished from the smaller porpoises and dolphins and sometimes from narwhals, but they are all cetaceans. Seealso baleen whale; toothed whale.

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Common term for members of the cetacean suborder Odontoceti. Toothed whales have slicing teeth and a throat large enough to swallow chunks of giant squid, cuttlefish, and fish of all kinds. Included in this group are the beluga, killer whale, pilot whales, sperm whale, and mammalian dolphins, porpoises, and narwhals.

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or cachalot

Thickset, blunt-snouted toothed whale (Physeter catodon, family Physeteridae) with small, paddlelike flippers and rounded humps on the back. Sperm whales have an enormous head, squarish in profile, and a narrow, underslung lower jaw with large conical teeth that fit into sockets in the toothless upper jaw when the mouth is closed. They are dark blue-gray or brownish. (Herman Melville's Moby-Dick was presumably an albino.) The male grows to 60 ft (18 m). Herds of 15–20 live in temperate and tropical waters worldwide. They commonly dive to 1,200 ft (350 m), feeding primarily on cephalopods. The whales have been hunted for their spermaceti (a waxy substance in the snout, used in ointments and cosmetics) and for ambergris. The pygmy sperm whale (genus Kogia) is a black dolphinlike whale, about 13 ft (4 m) long, of the Northern Hemisphere that lacks commercial value.

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or Rudolphi's rorqual

Swift species (Balaenoptera borealis) of baleen whale in the rorqual family. It is 40–50 ft (13–15 m) long and is bluish gray or blackish above and paler below. It has small flippers, about 50 short lengthwise grooves on its chest, and dark baleen with pale, silky, inner fringes. It inhabits oceans from the Arctic to the Antarctic, migrating between cold and temperate summer waters and winter breeding grounds in warmer regions.

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Southern right whale (Eubalaena australis).

Any of five species (genera Balaena, Eubalaena, and Caperea) of baleen whales (family Balaenidae) with a stout body and an enormous head. (The name refers to two species considered the “right” whales to hunt because of their value, slowness, and buoyancy after death.) The upper jaw is strongly arched, and the lower lip curves upward along the side, giving the lower jaw a scooplike form. There is no dorsal fin except in the pygmy right whale (Caperea marginata), a small, seldom-seen whale of the Southern Hemisphere. The bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus), inhabiting Arctic and northern temperate waters, is black, with a white chin, throat, and sometimes underparts. It grows to about 65 ft (20 m). The northern right whale (E. glacialis) grows to 60 ft (18 m). Similar to the bowhead but with a smaller, less strongly arched head, it may also have a “bonnet,” a horny growth infested with parasites, on its snout. Both species have been protected since 1946.

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Any of one to three species (genus Globicephala, family Delphinidae) of toothed whale found in all oceans except the Arctic and Antarctic, also called caa'ing whale for a roaring sound it makes when stranded. It is black, usually with a lighter splash on the throat and chest, and has a round, bulging forehead, a short beaklike snout, and slender, pointed flippers, and grows to 13–20 ft (4–6 m) long. Pilot whales live in large schools, sometimes hundreds or thousands, feeding mainly on squid. They have been kept in oceanariums and trained to perform.

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or orca

Killer whale (Orcinus orca).

A species (Orcinus orca) of toothed whale found in all seas from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Largest of the dolphins, the male may be 30 ft (9 m) long and weigh over 10,000 lbs (4,500 kg). The killer whale is black, with white on the underparts, above each eye, and on each flank. The snout is blunt, and the strong jaws have 40–50 large, sharp, conical teeth. Killer whales live in groups of a few to about 50 individuals. They feed on fishes, cephalopods, penguins, and marine mammals; though they are fierce predators of seals and even other whales, there is no recorded instance of a killer whale attacking a human. They are often kept in captivity and trained as performers in marine shows.

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Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) breaching.

Long-finned baleen whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). They live along all major ocean coasts, sometimes swimming close inshore or even into harbours and up rivers. Humpbacks grow to 40–52 ft (12–16 m) long. They are black above, with some white below, and have large knobs on the head and jaws. The humpback migrates between polar waters in summer and tropical or subtropical breeding grounds in winter. It feeds on shrimplike crustaceans, small fish, and plankton. It is probably the most vocal of all whales (with “songs” of 5–35 minutes) and one of the most acrobatic (capable of turning a somersault). Much reduced in number by overhunting, humpbacks have been protected worldwide since the 1960s, and some populations seem to be increasing.

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or finback whale or razorback whale or common rorqual

Swift, slender-bodied baleen whale (Balaenoptera physalus) named for the ridge on its back. It is 59–89 ft (18–27 m) long, with a triangular dorsal fin, short baleen, and several dozen grooves along its throat and chest. It is gray, with white on the underparts and on the right side of the lower jaw. It is found in oceans worldwide, in groups of a few to several hundred. It lives in polar waters in summer, feeding on crustaceans and small fishes, and moves to warmer waters in winter to breed. Once commercially valuable, it has been substantially reduced in numbers by overhunting and is now listed as an endangered species.

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Mottled, blue-gray baleen whale (Balaenoptera musculus), also called sulfur-bottom whale because of the yellowish diatoms on some individuals. The largest of all animals, the blue whale reaches a maximum length of about 100 ft (30 m) and a maximum weight of 150 tons (136,000 kg). It is found alone or in small groups in all oceans. In summer it feeds on krill in polar waters, and in winter it moves toward the equator to breed. It was once the most important of the commercially hunted baleen whales, and its populations were greatly reduced. Listed as an endangered species, it is now protected.

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Whales are marine mammals which are neither dolphins (i.e. members of the families Delphinidae or Platanistoidae) nor porpoises. Orcas (Killer Whales) and Pilot whales have "whale" in their name, though they are dolphins for the purpose of classification.

Origins and taxonomy

All cetaceans, including whales, dolphins and porpoises, are descendants of land-living mammals of the Artiodactyl order (even-toed ungulate animals). Both cetaceans and artiodactyl are now classified under the super-order Cetartiodactyla which includes both whales and hippopotamuses. In fact, whales are the closest living relatives of hippopotamuses; they evolved from a common ancestor at around 54 million years ago. Whales entered the water roughly 50 million years ago. Cetaceans are divided into two suborders:

  • The baleen whales are characterized by baleen, a sieve-like structure in the upper jaw made of keratin, which they use to filter plankton from the water. They are the largest suborder of whale.
  • The toothed whales have teeth and prey on fish, squid, or both. An outstanding ability of this group is to sense their surrounding environment through echolocation.

A complete up-to-date taxonomical listing of all cetacean species, including all whales, is maintained at the Cetacea article.

Anatomy

Like all mammals, whales breathe air into lungs, are warm-blooded, feed their young milk from mammary glands, and have some (although very little) hair.

The body is fusiform, resembling the streamlined form of a fish. The forelimbs, also called flippers, are paddle-shaped. The end of the tail holds the fluke, or tail fins, which provide propulsion by vertical movement. Although whales generally do not possess hind limbs, some whales (such as sperm whales and baleen whales) sometimes have rudimentary hind limbs; some even with feet and digits. Most species of whale bear a fin on their backs known as a dorsal fin. Beneath the skin lies a layer of fat,so called blubber. It serves as an energy reservoir and also as insulation. Whales have a four-chambered heart. The neck vertebrae are fused in most whales, which provides stability during swimming at the expense of flexibility. They have a pelvis bone, which is a vestigial structure Whales breathe through their blowholes, located on the top of the head so the animal can remain submerged. Baleen whales have two; toothed whales have one. The shapes of whales' spouts when exhaling after a dive, when seen from the right angle, differ between species. Whales have a unique respiratory system that lets them stay underwater for long periods of time without taking in oxygen. Some whales, such as the Sperm Whale, can stay underwater for up to two hours holding a single breath. The Blue Whale is the largest known mammal that has ever lived, and the largest living animal, at up to 35 m (105ft) long and 150 tons. Whales generally live for 40-90 years, depending on their species, and on rare occasions can be found to live over a century. Recently a fragment of a lance used by commercial whalers in the 19th century has been found in a bowhead whale caught off Alaska, which showed the whale to be between 115 and 130 years old. Furthermore, a technique for dating age from aspartic acid racemization in the whale eye, combined with a harpoon fragment, indicates an age of 211 years for one male, making bowhead whales the longest lived extant mammal species. Whale flukes often can be used as identifying markings, as is the case for humpback whales. This is the method by which the publicized errant Humphrey the whale was identified in three separate sightings.

A toothed whale, like the sperm whale, possess teeth with cementum cells overlying dentine cells. Unlike human teeth which are comprised mostly of enamel on the tooth portion outside of the gum, whale teeth have cementum outside the gum. Only in larger whales does some enamel show where the cementum has been worn away on the tip of the tooth revealing the underlying enamel.

Anatomy of the ear

While there are direct similarities between the ears of whales and humans, whales’ ears have specific adaptations to their underwater environment. In humans, the middle ear works as an impedance matcher between the outside air’s low-impedance and the cochlear fluid’s high-impedance. In aquatic mammals such as whales, however, there is no great difference between the outer and inner environments. Instead of sound passing through outer ear to middle ear, whales receive sound through their lower jaw, where it passes through a low-impedance, fat-filled cavity.

Behavior

Whales are widely classed as predators, but their food ranges from microscopic plankton to very large fish. Males are called bulls; females, cows. The young are called calves.

As mammals, whales breathe air and must surface to get oxygen. This is done through a blowhole. Many whales also exhibit other surfacing behaviours such as breaching and tail slapping.

Because of their environment (and unlike many animals), whales are conscious breathers: they decide when to breathe. All mammals sleep, including whales, but they cannot afford to fall into an unconscious state for too long, since they need to be conscious in order to breathe. It is thought that only one hemisphere of their brains sleeps at a time, so that whales are never completely asleep, but still get the rest they need. This is thought because whales often sleep with only one eye closed.

Whales also communicate with each other using lyrical sounds, called whale song. Being so large and powerful, these sounds are also extremely loud (depending on the species); sperm whales have only been heard making clicks, as all toothed whales (Odontoceti) use echolocation and can be heard for many miles. They have been known to generate about 20,000 acoustic watts of sound at 163 decibels.

Females give birth to a single calf. Nursing time is long (more than one year in many species), which is associated with a strong bond between mother and young. In most whales reproductive maturity occurs late, typically at seven to ten years. This mode of reproduction spawns few offspring, but provides each with a high probability of survival in the wild.

The male genitals are retracted into cavities of the body during swimming, so as to be streamlined and reduce drag. Most whales do not maintain fixed partnerships during mating; in many species the females have several mates each season. At birth newborn are delivered tail-first, minimising the risk of drowning. Whale cows nurse by actively squirting milk the consistency of toothpaste into the mouths of their young preventing loss to the surrounding aquatic environment.

Human effects

Whaling

Some species of large whales are endangered as a result of commercial whaling from the eleventh century to the twentieth. For centuries large whales have been hunted for oil, meat, baleen and ambergris (a perfume ingredient from the intestine of sperm whales). By the middle of the 20th century, whaling left many populations severely depleted.

The International Whaling Commission introduced a six year moratorium on all commercial whaling in 1986, which has been extended to the present day. For various reasons some exceptions to this moratorium exist; current whaling nations are Norway, Iceland and Japan and the aboriginal communities of Siberia, Alaska and northern Canada. For details, see whaling.

Several species of small whales are caught as bycatch in fisheries for other species. In the tuna fishery in the Eastern Tropical Pacific thousands of dolphins were drowned in purse-seine nets, until measures to prevent this were introduced. Fishing gear and deployment modifications, and eco-labelling (dolphin-safe or dolphin-friendly brands of canned tuna), have contributed to a reduction in the mortality of dolphins by tuna fishing vessels in recent years. In many countries, small whales are still hunted for food, oil, meat or bait.

Sonar interference

Environmentalists have long speculated that some cetaceans, including whales, are endangered by sonar used by advanced navies. In 2003 British and Spanish scientists suggested in Nature that sonar is connected to whale beachings and to signs that the beached whales have experienced decompression sickness. Responses in Nature the following year discounted the explanation. Mass whale beachings occur in many species, mostly beaked whales that use echolocation systems for deep diving. The frequency and size of beachings around the world, recorded over the last 1,000 years in religious tracts and more recently in scientific surveys, has been used to estimate the changing population size of various whale species by assuming that the proportion of the total whale population beaching in any one year is constant.

Despite the concerns raised about sonar which may invalidate this assumption, this population estimate technique is still popular today. Talpalar and Grossman argue that it is the combination of the high pressure environment of deep-diving with the disturbing effect of the sonar which causes decompression sickness and stranding of whales. Thus, an exaggerated startle response occurring during deep diving may alter orientation cues and produce rapid ascent.

Following public concern, the U.S. Defense department was ordered by the US circuit court in California to strictly limit use of its Low Frequency Active Sonar during peacetime. Attempts by the UK-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society to obtain a public inquiry into the possible dangers of the Royal Navy's equivalent (the "2087" sonar launched in December 2004) have so far failed. The European Parliament on the other hand has requested that EU members refrain from using the powerful sonar system until an environmental impact study has been carried out.

Other environmental disturbances

Conservationists are concerned that seismic testing used for oil and gas exploration may damage the hearing and echolocation capabilities of whales and suggest that such testing may also be responsible for beaching.

Other human activities have been suggested to adversely impact whale populations, ranging from the unregulated use of fishing gear which catches anything that swims into it, to collisions with ships. Environmental toxins and the combination of toxins, particularly POPs (which concentrate up the food chain), have been shown to cause hearing loss by inhibiting the function of outer hair cells in the cochlea of the ear, and exposure to these toxins might affect whale echolocation, leading to beaching .

Whales are also threatened by climate change and global warming. As the Antarctic Ocean warms, krill populations, that are the main food source of some species of whales, reduce dramatically, being replaced by jelly like salps.

Whales in culture

Whales are frequently portrayed in literature as violent creatures who attack shipping and kill or eat sailors, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. This is especially true in literature written prior to the modern scientific study of the creatures, or in period literature. A common whale-themed plot device concerns mariners who are swallowed whole by a whale, and find themselves trapped alive in the creature's belly. In some instances, the victims of these encounters are able to escape, often by causing the whale sufficient gastronomic distress that it is forced to expel them; in other such occurrences in fiction, the victim is doomed.

Portrayals of whales or whaling in literature, film, TV, or religion include:

  • A kenning in Beowulf refers to the sea as the "whale-road".
  • Procopius mentions a whale, nicknamed Porphyrio by the Byzantines, who depleted fisheries in the Sea of Marmara.
  • The King James Version of the Bible mentions whales four times: "And God created great whales" (Genesis 1:21); "Am I a sea, or a whale, that thou settest a watch over me? (Job 7:12); "Thou art like a young lion of the nations, and thou art as a whale in the seas (Ezekiel 32:2); and "For as Jonas [sic] was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:40).
    • The New International Version uses "creatures of the sea"; "monster of the deep"; "monster"; and "huge fish" respectively instead of the word 'whale'.
    • The story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale also is mentioned in the Qur'an.
    • John Tavener's composition The Whale is based on the story of Jonah.
  • Alan Hovhaness wrote a piece for orchestra entitled And God Created Great Whales.
  • The poet Heathcote Williams wrote a long poem entitled Whale Nation.
  • In the children's novel The Adventures of Pinocchio and subsequent adaptations, Pinocchio and his father are swallowed by a whale.
  • A whaling voyage is the plot of Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick. In the book, Melville classed whales as "a spouting fish with a horizontal tail", this despite science suggesting otherwise the previous century. (His narrator acknowledged "the grounds upon which Linnaeus would fain have banished the whales from the waters" but writes that when he presented them to "my friends Simeon Macey and Charley Coffin, of Nantucket ... they united in the opinion that the reasons set forth were altogether insufficient. Charley profanely hinted they were humbug" (Chapter 32).) Melville's book is a classic of American literature: part adventure novel, part metaphysical allegory, and part natural history; it is essentially a summary of 19th century knowledge about the biology, ecology and cultural significance of the whale.
  • Some cultures associate some level of divinity with the whale, such as in some places in Ghana and the Vietnamese, who occasionally hold funerals for beached whales, a throwback to Vietnam's ancient sea-based Austro-asiatic culture. The movie Whale Rider follows the trials of a girl named Paikia, who lives in such a culture.
  • Festivals celebrating whales have sprung in both Sitka and Kodiak Alaska. They feature speakers on marine biology and celebrate the creatures with art, music, whale watching cruises, and symposia.
  • In the British series Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy a whale, alongside a bowl of petunias, is created by the use of the Infinite Improbability Drive.
  • In the film Finding Nemo, a whale swallows the characters Marlin and Dory. Unlike other such encounters in film and literature, the whale had not intended to do so, and assists them in escaping back to the ocean via its blowhole.
  • The Decemberists song "The Mariner's Revenge Song" concerns two sailors (one an older whaling ship captain and the other a young privateer) trapped together in a whale's belly, the latter seeking to kill the other to avenge his mother's death. At the time the privateer was preparing to attack the whaling ship, both ships were attacked and sunk by the whale in question, with all other crew members of both ships being eaten.
  • In the National Geographic Channel program "Extraterrestrial", in a moon called Blue Moon, it's largest flying creatures are gargantuan whale-like creatues called Skywhales.

References

General references

  • Carwardine, M. Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises. Dorling Kindersley. ISBN 0-7513-2781-6.

External links

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