What is a whale?

Ocean Alliance is a whale research and education group. Our mission is to protect whales and their ocean environment through research and education. But what is exactly is a whale?

Well, for starters, whales are not fish but are mammals: just like us. They breathe air, are warm-blooded, and the young are fed milk produced by the mothers.

Whale history/evolution

The ancestors of whales, such as Pakicetus, lived on land and looked somewhat similar to modern-day wolves. Pakicetus lived around 50 million years ago in what is now South Asia. Over time, Pakicetus and its ancestors began spending more and more time in the ocean before becoming entirely ocean-bound animals.

How many species of whale are there?

There are currently 92 species of recognized whale. This number does, strangely, change from time to time. Sometimes an entirely new species is discovered, such as in December 2020 when a group of scientists and conservationists announced they had found a new species of beaked whale.

Other times, scientists find evidence that a specific population of a whale species is deemed to be different enough from the rest of the species to warrant being a species of its own. An example of this is Rice’s whale. Rice’s whale was previously believed to be a population of Bryde’s whales living in the Gulf of Mexico. But scientists now say that they are different enough from other Bryde’s whales to be given their own name. Some scientists want to call this species America’s Whale because it is the only species of baleen whale we know of that lives entirely within the waters of just one country (America). Sadly, this species is on the brink of extinction, with as few as 20 individuals left.

Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises

The family (infraorder) Cetacea includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises. The word Cetacea comes from the Greek work Ketos, meaning whale. A long time ago, around 40 million years ago, the Cetacea group split into two: the baleen whales (including the blue and humpback whales) and the toothed whales (such as dolphins, porpoise, and sperm whales).

This means that dolphins and porpoises are technically whales: they are part of the toothed whale group. This group also includes orca, river dolphins, beluga whales, and narwhals.

The other group of whales is the baleen whales. These whales have baleen instead of teeth, which they use to filter their food through. These are the huge animals that most people commonly think of as whales: the blue, fin, sperm, Sei, right, bowhead, Bryde’s, humpback, minke, and gray whales.

Does Ocean Alliance study all of them?

Technically, Ocean Alliance is dedicated to studying and protecting all members of the Cetacea family. However, over the years, we have come to specialize in a few particular species. Dr. Roger Payne did a lot of his early work with humpback whales and Southern right whales: and we continue to study them today. From 2000-2015 we focused on sperm whales. With our current research program, SnotBot, we have studied 6 species of whale. We have focused on studying humpback and blue whales, but have also studied Southern right whales, gray whales, fin whales, and orca.