Tag Archives: Whales

Learning About Whales From the Inside Out!

Gray whales are some of the most massive mammals that roam our ocean because they reach lengths of almost 45 feet.  Could you even imagine what it would be like to come face to face with a whale of that size? It’s pretty mind-blowing to think of!

An average gray whale will reach lengths of about 36 to 45 feet and weigh upwards of almost 80,000 pounds!  Their tongue alone is about 5 feet long and can weigh almost 3000 pounds.  But that’s not the only impressive measurement.  For us humans our brain is about 3 pounds whereas for gray whale their brains are over 9 pounds.  That’s triple what our own brains weigh! Not only that but the heart of a gray whale weighs over 285 pounds alone.  These guys have some pretty enormous parts inside of them.  

Image Left Gray Whale Brain, Image Right Gray Whale Heart

The backbone of a gray whale is composed of 56 vertebrae – vertebrae that are so large Native Americans used to use their vertebrae as stools!  This just further proves the point that gray whales are massive mammals!

But their size is not the only impressive thing about their anatomy. The lungs of a gray whale are directly connected to both blowholes rather than being connected to their mouth.  And when they breathe they expel 100 gallons of air making a heart-shaped spout that will reach heights of almost 15 feet!  Gray whales also have an extremely flexible rib cage that comes in handy when they dive to deep depths.  With this flexibility their rib cage will bend as they dive down preventing anything from breaking.  This adaptation definitely comes in handy as Gray whales can to depths of almost 400 feet deep lasting anywhere from 3 to 15 minutes.

Since Gray Whales reach such impressive lengths they must each a lot in order to sustain them.  When they are first-born young gray whales will consume milk from their mothers that is about 53% fat.  This milk is so fatty that is has the consistency of cottage cheese!  But as they grow older they no longer depend on their mother’s milk, instead they feed on things found in the ocean.  Gray Whales have an average of about 130 to 180 plates of baleen on each side of their upper jaw. Baleen is a hair-like structure (made of keratin) that hangs down from the upper jaw of a whale.  While feeding they utilize their baleen to filter out water and sediment while keeping the delicious benthic invertebrates trapped in their mouth.


Gray Whale.  National Audubon Society: Guide to Marine Mammals of the World.  2002.

Written By: Alex Feltes

The Mammal Channel

It’s so exciting to see marine mammals at CIMI! With spring migrations in full swing, we are feeling very lucky to be seeing lots of grey whales, common dolphins, and Risso’s dolphins among many more in San Pedro channel.


Scientists still don’t know why Risso’s dolphins scar each other’s skin with their teeth in unique patterns like this. (Image credit: Cosmos Magazine)

What is a marine mammal?

Mammals have five characteristics that separate them from other animals: they breathe oxygen, have hair or fur, give birth to live young that females nurse with milk from mammary glands (called lactation), and are warm-blooded. Marine mammals are mammals that rely on the ocean for their primary food source.

What are some types of marine mammals?

There are five groups of marine mammals:

  • Whales and dolphins (cetacea)
  • Seals and sea lions (pinnipedia)
  • Sea otters (they’re members of the weasel family!)
  • Manatees and dugongs (sirenia)
  • and, yes, even polar bears! 

Where did marine mammals come from?

Isn’t it strange that mammals who need to breathe oxygen and keep warm live in underwater habitats? Scientists believe that marine mammals such as whales evolved from dog-like creatures that ate fish, and slowly developed characteristics that helped them spend longer in the water to hunt.

Why are marine mammals important?

Because they are big, beautiful, and some seem ‘cuddly’, and because so many species are threatened by poaching, habitat destruction, and pollution, marine mammals are often the “poster child” for ocean conservation. But they are more than just a mascot; marine mammals are apex predators in their habitats, meaning they are very important to keep other populations in check. For example, sea otters love to feed on urchins, and urchins are powerful ocean grazers. If a sea otter population is threatened, urchins often take over because their population grows so quickly in the absence of predators. This can create “urchin barrens,” or areas where habitat for small invertebrates and fish is completely destroyed because all the algae and kelp has been eaten by urchins!

Fun marine mammal facts:

  • You can tell a sea lion apart from a seal by looking at its front flippers, ears, swimming, and social behavior: sea lions have longer, more developed flippers that allow for easier motion on land. They also have small ear flaps, “porpoise” or play and flip at the surface of the water, raise young in large groups, and adopt orphan pups. Seals, on the other hand, have shorter flippers and are awkward on land. They have small ear holes instead of ear flaps, “periscope” or pop up for a quick look and breath before diving down for long periods of time, and are more solitary in their behavior.


California Sea Lions


Harbor seals (Image credits: NOAA/Dan Linehan)

  • Orcas and dolphins are “odontocetes,” which means “toothed whale.” They are carnivorous and eat mostly fish and small invertebrates. Most larger whales are “mysticetes,” which means “mustached whale” — named for the fibrous baleen that helps these massive creatures feed on tiny plankton and krill that they filter into their mouths.


No wonder this guy didn’t want to eat Nemo and Dory after all! (Image Credit: Disney)

  • A blue whale is the largest animal that is living — or has ever lived — on Earth, measuring in at 30 meters!


Blue whales are about three “Megalodons” long. Ssssh… don’t tell T-rex. (Image credit: Pukatea.blogspot.com)

We could talk all day about marine mammals at CIMI, but here are some other places to explore for more:

To learn more about marine mammals and see a longer list of species, check out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s page about them here: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/

To learn more about exciting new research about Risso’s dolphins, check out this article in Cosmos Magazine: https://cosmosmagazine.com/life-sciences/social-network-rissos-dolphins/

To learn more about marine mammal conservation and rehabilitation, check out the marine mammal center’s website at http://www.marinemammalcenter.org/


We would like to thank you for visiting our blog. Catalina Island Marine Institute is a hands-on marine science program with an emphasis on ocean exploration. Our classes and activities are designed to inspire students toward future success in their academic and personal pursuits. This blog is intended to provide you with up-to-date news and information about our camp programs, as well as current science and ocean happenings. This blog has been created by our staff who have at least a Bachelors Degree usually in marine science or related subjects. We encourage you to also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Twitter, and Vine to see even more of our interesting science and ocean information. Feel free to leave comments, questions, or share our blog with others. Please visit www.cimi.org for additional information. Happy Reading!