The blue whale – how I met the largest animal that has ever existed

By Ed Yong | February 19, 2012 1:34 pm

“I can see its tail,” says David Attenborough, perched on a small boat. “It’s coming up… it’s coming up! There! The blue whale!” Ever since I first saw The Life of Mammals, I’ve always remembered Attenborough’s joy at seeing the “largest animal that exists or has ever existed”.

I now know how he felt.

On Monday, off the southern coast of Sri Lanka, my wife and I had the privilege of seeing five blue whales.

And not just a gray bump in the far distance, as with many whale-watching trips. Two of them swam within 30 metres of the boat, which, as it happens, is about a blue whale’s length away. They stuck around too, getting closer and closer and gracing us with several minutes in their company.

You cannot talk about blue whales without launching into a litany of breathless stats (see blue whale facts at the bottom). Thirty metres in length. 180 tonnes in weight.  Able to eat half a million calories in a single mouthful. A heart the size of a small car. A major artery so big that a child could fit in it. It’s so big that the so-called “pygmy blue whale” – the Indian Ocean subspecies that we most likely saw – is so-named because it only grows to 24 metres in length.

But there’s a difference between reading the numbers and seeing one in the flesh.

The first sign of a blue whale is the spout of water that issues forth from its blowhole when it surfaces to breathe. The spout is 9 to 12 metres tall – easy to spot from a distance. The whale stays at the surface for a few minutes, taking repeated breaths. One of the animals we saw did a couple of rolls, possibly to clean itself. Here’s one half of its tail.

Then, it dives. That’s when you really understand. As its head angles downward, and its arching back breaks the surface in a smooth roll, it just keeps on going. And going. And going. By the time the tail comes up, you start to wonder if this animal is ever going to actually end. Once it’s gone, it’ll stay that way for around 8 to 10 minutes, swimming 100 metres or so below the surface in search of krill. You check your watch, and 8 to 10 minutes later, you scan the horizon again for that spout.

To give you an idea of the animal’s size, the photo above has one next to a tourist boat. That tiny dorsal fin lies near the tail, about three-quarters down the whale’s body. You see it when the whale dives. So, if you imagine a massive tail in line with the back of the boat, there’s still a huge amount of whale pointing downwards. Most of its head is well out of the frame of the photo.

We sailed with Mirissa Water Sports, the first company to run whale-watching trips in the area and still the best. It’s an offshoot of the Build a Future Foundation, which tries to provides opportunities for young Sri Lankans in areas that had been devastated by the tsunami of 2004.

Sri Lanka has only recently become a hot whale-watching destination, largely thanks to British marine biologist Charles Anderson. Around a decade ago, Anderson hypothesised that blue and sperm whales migrate from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal, passing by the south coast of Sri Lanka on their way. The frequency of sightings ever since seems to confirm his idea. At the time of our trip, the crew had seen blue whales on all but one day in February.

But don’t be deceived by the regular sightings: these magnificent animals are endangered. Counting such an elusive animal is obviously tricky, but the IUCN puts the global total at somewhere between 10,000 to 25,000 individuals. That’s between 3 and 11 per cent of their numbers in 1911.

Hunting took a big toll on the whales, but it has now been banned internationally. Still, there are other threats. Large ocean vessels sometimes collide with the whales, and their noise might make it harder for the animals to communicate. Here’s a final photo to remind us of how closely the paths of humans and blue whales often intersect.

Some blue whale facts:

  • Blue whales are so big that each one can grow as large as a fully grown blue whale. That’s huge!
  • If you take all the blue whales in the world and put them on a giant weighing scale, you are on drugs.
  • A blue whale’s heart is the size of a Volkswagen beetle, but its steering is rubbish.
  • If you take a blue whale’s intestines and lay them in a line, what’s wrong with you, you sick bastard?
CATEGORIZED UNDER: Dolphins and whales, Personal

Comments (17)

  1. Madhu

    Awesome, really awesome !!!

  2. rjw

    More of the absurdist humour please!

    Very cool story. I saw some Southern Wright Whales in Argentina which was awesome… But not quite so big as these.

  3. Daniel J. Andrews

    On the Attenborough filmed biography (Life on Air made by Monty Python member, Michael Palin????), there is an alternate clip of Sir Attenborough and the blue whale, which I like even better than the one that made it into the film. It starts off the same, but it comes up and it so startles him (or makes him so happy and excited) that he can’t get the word “There!” out. He is so invigorated, happy, laughing, excited, even the most cynical would know this is not an act, but a man who loves what he does and who is absolutely fascinated by the world around him. If you’re an Attenborough fan, I really recommend that biography. I liked his autobiography (book) too.

    While I’m rambling on the topic, his other films are worth watching. I think my favourite is the detective story regarding finding the origins of a piece of sculptured wood. See him put the scientific method into practice. Cleverly done. Also liked Attenborough in Paradise too.

  4. zackoz

    Blue whale facts! – Good to see you back, Ed, and in top form too!

    Attenborough’s unaffected joy in seeing and explaining nature is notorious.

    I recall a column years ago by Clive James where he noted that Attenborough looked truly thrilled while standing on a pile of bat dung in a cave in Malaysia.

    Thanks for the reference to the Life on Air film, Daniel. I must get hold of that.

  5. Richie
  6. Bob

    In the last photo, is that forced perspective, or is the critter that much bigger than a freighter? :)

    RJB

  7. Lovely. My parents sent me a breathless 5 second clip of a baby blue whale right beside their boat. The size of the infant was impressive. I can only pray there are blue whales around for my children to know. Loved the but at the end. Will have to remember that for my students.

  8. Alex

    The largest animal that has ever existed? Really? Fantastic.

  9. The blue whale facts cracked me up. Thank you for making my afternoon! Easily one of my favorite organisms.

    Fun food for thought: we should ask ourselves how it is that giant whales are able to reach such extreme sizes. Their marine ecology is certainly important in that regard, but it turns out that simple mechanical support is probably not the answer. We might also wonder what it is that sets the upper limit on size in whales – is it food availability, or perhaps something physiological? The biology of giants is rather less intuitive than one might expect.

  10. Love the way this opens because we just watched that Attenborough scene about a week ago, and his genuine surprise and excitement were delightful to see. I can only imagine being able to experience that in person. How cool.

  11. mfumbesi

    Loved the Blue Whale facts. Welcome back by the way.

  12. Shruti

    beautiful pictures, the best blue whale facts!

  13. Imoscar

    Absolutely fantastic

  14. Henrique Niza

    You’re one hell lucky person, Ed. See a blue whale in person… it has to be something unspeakable, indeed. It is on my to-do list.

  15. Joe Jayasinghe

    Sri Lanka is an ideal place to watch Blue whales. Other than Mirissa, sea off east cost town Trinco (Trincomalle) is a good habitat for Blue Whales. They come so closer to the coast.

  16. Wow. That is absolutely amazing and Sri Lanka must be beautiful.

  17. Robert

    Sorry for the (possible) ignorance, but is this whale larger than ALL dinosaurs? I once saw on Discovery Channel that there was once a dinosaur so big that the ground would literally quake when it walked.

    Surely this whale isn’t bigger than that?
    (look up “Amphicoelias”, a huge sauropod, to get an idea of what I’m talking about)

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