God’s Gentle Giants of the Sea (Whales)

Did You Know…?

  • …that a whale can sing yet has no vocal cords?
  • …that some whales strain their food before eating it?
  • …that a baby blue whale gains more than 200 pounds per day?
  • …that the killer whale is harmless to humans?
  • …that the great blue whale is three times larger than the largest known dinosaur?
  • …that the whale has to think about every breath it breathes?
  • …that whales speak with a dialect?
  • …that whales migrate thousands of miles each year?
  • …that whale calves stay with their mothers for 3 to 6 years.
  • …that the largest animals on earth (baleen whales) survive by eating some of the smallest animals on earth (plankton).

You may not realize it, but you and the whale have a lot in common. You are both warm-blooded mammals, you both breathe air, you both enjoy a good fish dinner—and you are both remarkable examples of the intricate design skills of your Creator.

You don’t like the idea that the whale is as remarkable a creation—in its way—as you are? Reserve that decision until you have taken a plunge into the deep and learned about this mammoth example of God’s handiwork.

Gentle giants of the sea, whales are fascinating creatures. I say gentle because whales, apart from sustaining themselves by eating (all of us do plenty of that), they are as kindly as any animal in creation. Forget the horror stories about whales attacking humans—even the 8-ton, 22-foot killer whale with its 50 teeth has never done it (except in the story book), though whales are said to attack animals larger than themselves.

Many Varieties of Whales

“Whales” is the name assigned to a fascinating group of mammals, including approximately 80 different species. They range in size from the 4-foot Hector dolphin to the 100-foot Blue whale, which weighs 150 tons. Yes, that is 300,000 pounds, the largest creature ever to live, three times larger than the most gigantic known dinosaur of the past. All are warm blooded, with features very similar to those of other mammals, despite their superficial resemblance to fish. All must come to the water’s surface to breathe.

But they are designed exclusively to live in the water. Equipped with a powerful tail (their propeller) and paddle-shaped flippers (for steering and balance) they are able to move gracefully. Washed ashore, they are helpless, and without the support of the water their lungs may be crushed by the weight of their bodies.

Most whales aren’t fast swimmers, but some species are terrific leapers. Humpbacks, for example, can jump almost completely out of the water, landing on their side with a tremendous splash. Other times, they slap the water with a flipper or pound the sea with their tail. They also have the curious habit of lying on their back with both flippers up in the air. The purpose? It looks like they enjoy play.

What’s for Dinner?

As you can easily imagine, these giants of the sea have a giant need for food, and our Masterful Creator has provided for them.

Whales are classified according to how they feed. The toothed whales, which include dolphins and porpoises, feed mostly on fish and squid which they can catch with their sharp, cone-shaped teeth. (Since they do not chew their food, their teeth are designed merely for gripping their prey.)

How do these whales manage to live by swallowing whole fish and squid? This problem would have meant tough chewing for evolution, but for the Master Designer it was easy. The whale is equipped with a multi-chambered stomach, each chamber doing part of the food processing. (If this happened by evolution, why is it that after all the years of indigestion, humans still have only one stomach!)

The other group of whales have a unique feeding structure called baleen in place of teeth.

The baleen is a flexible, fringed comb which hangs in rows from the whale’s upper jaw, with a hard edge facing out and a fringed, hairy side facing in. (How did evolution produce this unique device after it was discovered that the whale could not move fast enough to catch larger fish?) The smaller the prey on which the whale feeds, the finer the “strainer” on the inside of the baleen in its mouth. (Did it just happen this way?)

Whales which live on zooplankton, including krill (shrimp-like animals one to two inches in length) and small schooling fish, have longer baleen arranged as hundreds of plates, with coarse hairs on the inside. In this group are the Blue whale, the thin whale and the Humpback. Swimming with mouth wide open, these whales suck in a lot of food-filled water.

How can the whale do it? The Creator thought of this need in advance and provided a special “pleated” bag along the sides of its throat that expands (to the size of a large living room!). Now it doesn’t want the water, just the food swimming in it. So the whale uses its long tongue (as long as 20 feet in a Blue whale), and pushes the water out through the baleen, leaving the food trapped inside. In a matter of minutes, dinner is ready—maybe as much as a ton of small krill.

Since this group of whales likes to “gulp,” it has a unique method for corralling its food. One or more whales will blow a ring of bubbles encircling a large amount of prey (usually small fish). Now small fish do not like bubbles, so they won’t try to swim away. They just cluster inside the wall of bubbles. Then the whale dives underneath the school, and comes straight up with its mouth wide open. Then, gulp!

What a catch!

Who taught the whale this artful method?

image courtesy of creative commons and wikipedia.org

Another type of whale is equipped with very coarse, short baleen which is used in quite a different way. These whales swim along the bottom of the sea on their side, scooping up small marine life as they go.

The killer whale is different from other whales. Thought to be one of the most intelligent of marine animals, several of its kind will surround a prey and attack using a united strategy. Where did the killer whale get its name if it does not attack humans? It has been observed killing other whales, even calves of the great Blue whale, so was given the name “whale killer.” Later the name was reversed to “killer whale.”

Navigating Through the Sea

How can the whale navigate through the dark underwater world where visibility is very poor, if not zero? The Master Designer gave many of the toothed whales a special echolocation system (which has been imitated for use in submarines, though not nearly so efficient as the whales use it). The whale sends a sound signal, and from the echo is able to identify location, and even color and composition of the object (metal, plastic, aluminum) by this method—quite a feat for undirected evolution!

Echolocation works because the whale has very keen hearing. (Porpoises, a member of the whale family, are capable of hearing sounds pitched ten times higher than the human limit.)

Communities Under the Sea

Whales in general are social creatures, especially the killer whales. Families consist of five to thirty members. Two or three females and their descendants live together as a “pod” (community). No one knows how, but the members of each pod are able to communicate with each other. Without the aid of vocal cords, whales make sounds intelligible to each other. Researchers claim that each pod has its own dialect or accent, depending on what part of the world they come from.

Singing In the Sea

You probably never heard them, but whales sing (even though most have no vocal cords). In fact, whale songs are the longest and most varied in the animal kingdom. Sounds range from high notes to low and include a variety of screams, moans, trills, whistles and barks. What does it mean? No one knows, but perhaps the whales are telling each other who they are, where they are, or how they feel.

Long Distance Travelers

Whales are champions at migrating. Every year they migrate thousands of miles from their winter homes, usually in the warm waters of the tropics, where their young are born, to their summer homes in Alaska, Antarctic or Greenland. If the calves were born in the frigid waters of the north, they would die—because they lack the protective layers of fat which they will develop later. How many generations died while they were “learning” this by evolution?) Some travel as much as 4000 miles—a long way for such huge mammals to travel under water. But they were designed to swim. Their slender bodies offer little resistance, and their powerful tails can propel them at speeds up to 35 miles per hour.


A Baby Whale is Born

Once every year or two, mother whales bear live young. Although a whale is huge, when a calf is born there is always danger due to sharks and killer whales. So several “midwives” stay nearby to give protection.

Since the whale calf is born under water, how does it breathe? Nothing went unnoticed in the Master’s design, not even the whale’s first breath of air. After the birth, the mother’s first instinct is to push the newborn to the surface. And the Master Designer has supplied it with an extra amount of oxygen in its tissues, so you don’t need to worry about the new baby passing out before it gets that first breath.

How fast does the baby grow? At birth the blue whale is about 23 feet long and weighs 5,000 to 6,000 pounds. For most of the first year the mother nurses the little one (little at least for whales!), providing it about 50 gallons a day. This milk consists of 35% to 50% fat (apparently whales have no cholesterol problem), and the newborn gains something like nine pounds an hour for the first eight months.

Even then, the “baby” is still a long way from full size. Much of the additional weight will be blubber, which it needs to survive.

A Built-In Heat Exchanger

Being mammals, whales must maintain a constant body temperature. How can they do it, when their habitat ranges from the warm waters of the deep south to the chill waters of the Arctic? They do it because of another marvel of engineering by our great Designer. Being massive in size, the whales’ change in body temperature is naturally slower than in smaller animals. They also have a built-in overcoat (blubber) which varies in thickness from six to twenty inches, depending on the need. (If evolution did it, why can’t we change the thickness of our fat layers with the season?)

But blubber is more than an overcoat. In it are many arteries with coils of smaller vessels surrounding them. The system acts as a very efficient heat exchanger that can either raise or lower body temperature as needed. It also doubles as an emergency supply of energy—if food is short, the whale can turn this fat into food energy.

A Breath of Fresh Air

Like us, whales must breathe to live. But unlike us, breathing for the whale is a multi-step process which has to be planned. It must swim to the surface, open the blow hole on top of its head, physically expel the old air through the blow hole, replace the air, then remember to close the blow hole before diving down into the sea again.

Who said breathing is easy?

But we can’t compete in efficiency. Can you imagine replacing 2100 quarts of air in about two seconds? This is what the Blue whale accomplishes every time it comes up for air. (Compare this to your own lung capacity. Inflate a small balloon, which holds about one quart—can you do it in one breath?)

So efficient is the whale’s use of oxygen that it can actually stay submerged between one and two hours. How? Again the credit must go to the great Designer. Humans store only about 13% oxygen; whales store about 41%.

But this is only part of the design. During a deep dive whales actually conserve oxygen for their heart and brain by reducing blood flow to other muscles. Even the heartbeat slows down to save more oxygen (a whale’s heart is the size of a small automobile).

What happens if this mammoth animal runs completely out of oxygen at a depth of 3000 feet? Does it die? No, the Master Designer thought of this, too. The whale can actually build up an “oxygen debt” by producing energy in its muscles without using oxygen. When it comes to the surface, it will just have to take an extra bit of time to repay the debt.

So when these mighty monsters feel like plunging, they’re ready—at speeds up to 35 miles per hour they can reach a depth of 3600 feet in a little more than a minute. How is that for an excursion!

Oh, who can say that whales have not been supremely crafted by God? “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being” (Rev. 4:11). What a mighty God we serve!

Lord, we give You thanks for life and breath, and for Your invitation to come and learn from the evidence of Your abundant handiwork. God of all creation, Your power and wisdom are without limit.

This same Master Designer invites us, through the pen of Job, “But now ask the beasts, and they will teach you; And the birds of the air, and they will tell you; Or speak to the earth, and it will teach you; And the fish of the sea will explain to you. Who among all these does not know That the hand of the Lord has done this, In whose hand is the life of every living thing, And the breath of all mankind?” (Job 12:7-10).

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