WHALES ARE considered by many to be the most magnificent and intelligent of the Antarctic marine mammals. Members of the order Cetacea which includes dolphins and porpoises, whales are divided into two groups: toothed (Odontoceti) and baleen (Mysticeti).
TOOTHED WHALES have narrow jaws lined with peg-like teeth which they use to catch fish, squid, and other marine mammals, swallowing them whole. They are smaller than baleen whales and only have one blowhole. The Killer (Orca) whale and the Sperm whale are the only toothed whales found in the Antarctic region. Baleen whales have comblike structures instead of teeth that are used to filter krill and fish from the water. They are larger than toothed whales and have two blowholes. The Blue, Fin, Humpback, Minke, Sei, and Southern Right Whales are the baleen whales found in the Antarctic.
IN THE EARLY and mid-1900’s, several species of whales in the Southern Ocean were hunted to the edge of extinction, but they are now gradually recovering thanks to international regulation. However, the great abundance of whales in the Antarctic region remains a thing of the past. Today the entire area around the continent of Antarctica has been declared an international whale sanctuary with whaling activities closely monitored by the International Whaling Commission (IWC).
WHALES HAVE sleek, streamlined bodies that move easily through the water. They are the only mammals, other than manatees, that live their entire lives in the water, and the only mammals that have adapted to life in the open oceans. Like all mammals, whales have lungs and they breathe air. They are warm-blooded, have a four-chambered heart, and nurse their young with milk from the mother. Unlike fish which swim by moving their tail left and right, whales swim by moving their flukes or tail flippers up and down.
ALL ANTARCTIC whale species migrate long distances, feeding in the cold, nutrient-rich Southern Oceans during the austral summer then heading to warmer northern waters to breed and give birth to their young during the winter months. Some whale species travel alone or in pairs while others travel in large social groups called pods.
Female whales reach sexual maturity between 6 and 11 years old. Pregnancies usually last about a year and rarely is more than one calf born in a season. Though whale calves can swim at or soon after birth, mother whales protect and feed them for up to 12 months. At birth, the young calves are frequently mottled in color and have a sparse covering of hair which they lose as adults. A typical whale’s lifespan is between 20 and 40 years though some may live to be 80.