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15 Weird and Wonderful Facts About Whales

Whales are so obviously different from us, yet surprisingly similar in so many ways. They are extremely intelligent and social beings that share our lifespan and often our close-knit family structures. They sing, they play, they nurture, they bond and they cooperate. However, unlike modern humans who appeared on the scene less than 200,000 years ago, modern cetaceans are an ancient clan stretching back tens of millions of years. These cetaceans first appeared in the fossil record about 50 million years ago (in modern form about 35 million years ago) and have been populating our oceans with a magical grace ever since. Below are 15 little-known, yet very interesting facts about the dozens of whale species that share our world.

Humpback whale and calf. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

1. The closest living relative to cetaceans (whales and dolphins) are hippos.

2. Sperm whales have bizarre sleep habits.Whole pods have been observed sleeping with their bodies completely vertical to the ocean floor with their heads bobbing at the surface. It is believed (but not entirely understood) that sperm whales dive to the ocean floor to nap, but during this nap time they slowly rise to the surface head-first. These naps appear to last no more than 12 minutes and oddly only take place between six p.m. and midnight.

3. The tusk or horn of the male narwhal is actually an oversized canine tooth. The tooth pierces the left lip, growing throughout life up to 10 feet long. This fancy oversized tooth is jam-packed with nerve endings and grows in a left-handed helix spiral. Oddly, about 15 percent of female narwhals also have tusks. Some of the first narwhal teeth (or tusks) to reach Europe were touted as being the horns of the mythical unicorn.

4. The blue whale has the largest penis in the world at about eight feet long, but not the largest testes. That award goes to the Southern Right whale. One pair of Southern Right whale gonads weigh about one ton.

5. The head and lower jaw of humpback whales are covered with knobs called tubercles, which are actually hair follicles.

6. The largest animal to ever grace our planet, living or extinct, is the blue whale. Blue whales have tipped the scales at 140 tons and reached 100 feet. The blue whale tongue alone can weigh as much as an elephant.

7. Not surprisingly, the blue whale also boasts the largest heart in the world, which is about the size of a VW Beetle and weighs up to 1,000 pounds. The aorta attached to this super-sized heart is is big enough for a human child to crawl through.

8. Sperm whales are super-divers. They love squid, so to dine on their favorite delicacy they must dive deep and hang there for awhile while hunting. Adults can dive to depths of 2,000 meters and stay submerged for almost two hours.

9. Fin whales pee the equivalent of about three bathtubs per day.

10. Orca whales are not whales, but actually dolphins. They are found in every ocean from the icy Arctic to the warm waters of the tropics and are considered one of the smartest animals on our planet.

11. Blue whales are pregnant for nearly two years.

Narwhal whales 'tusking'. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

12. A newborn blue whale calf weighs about as much as 100 men and is about 7.5 meters long.  This huge baby drinks enough fat-rich milk to fill a bathtub every day. This milk is 40-50 percent fat and has the consistency of cottage cheese. With all of this nursing, baby blue whales gain 3.7 kilograms an hour, until about eight months-old. By then, they typically weigh 22.5 tons.

13. Most whales give birth surrounded by midwives. The midwives help the newborn stay at the surface for breathing, while the mother recovers.

14. Gray whales migrate astonishingly long distances between their winter calving lagoons in Mexico and their summer feasting grounds in the Arctic—about 10,000 to 12,400 miles round-trip every year.

15. Blue whales can boast of being the loudest creatures on Earth. At 188 decibels, their loudest vocalizations can be heard hundreds of miles away and is louder than a jet, which peaks at only 140 decibels. Human ears cringe at sounds over 120-130 decibels.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.

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