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Stump the Scientist: Where do whales like to swim?

Miss Marcakis’s Grade 4/5 class at South Meridian Elementary in Surrey, BC wants to know: Do whales like to swim at the top or bottom of the ocean?

Physeter catodon Sperm whale Adult with 1 - 2 day old calf © Hal Whitehead / WWF-Canon

Sperm whale Adult with 1 – 2 day old calf © Hal Whitehead / WWF-Canon

Sea worthy question, guys! We asked Bettina Saier, Director of WWF’s Oceans Program, to dive deep for an answer.

The length and depth of whale dives depends on the species, and there are nearly 90 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises to compare!

Baleen whales (so named for the baleen plates in their mouths, used for filtering food from water), such as blue whales and humpback whales, do not swim at depths deeper than 100m, typically. This is because baleen whales feed on plankton and small schooling fish, which tend to be found closer to the water’s surface.

Toothed whales, like sperm whales and beluga whales, must dive deeper for their dinners, as they eat bottom-dwelling fish and invertebrates such as crabs, octopi, squid and clams. Researchers recently tracked a beaked whale swimming nearly 3,000m below the ocean surface off the coast of California! And, in Atlantic Canada, an important marine area known as the Gully is home to the northern bottlenose whale, one of the deepest-diving mammals in the ocean.

Despite living in the water, all whales breathe air and must come to the water’s surface in order to take a big gulp of fresh air. Following a deep dive, many whales will stay close to the surface for an hour or more to recover from their time spent at the bottom of the sea, similar to how you might need a couple of hours on the couch after a hard soccer game!