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  • Status
  • Population
    few as 300 North Atlantic right whales remain; other species vary: 10,000-90,000
  • Scientific Name
    Balaenoptera, Balaena, Eschrichtius, and Eubalaen
  • Weight
    20- 200 tons
  • Length
    45-100 ft.
  • Habitats
Bowhead whale

Whales roam throughout all of the world’s oceans, communicating with complex and mysterious sounds. Their sheer size amazes us: the blue whale can reach lengths of more than 100 feet and weigh up to 200 tons—as much as 33 elephants. 

Despite living in the water, whales breathe air. And like humans, they are warm-blooded mammals who nurse their young. A thick layer of fat called blubber insulates them from cold ocean waters.

Some whales are known as baleen whales including blue, right, bowhead, sei and gray whales. This refers to the fact that they have special bristle-like structures in their mouths (called baleen) that strains food from the water. Other whales, such as beluga or sperm whales, have teeth.


The Whales of Antarctica

Whales don’t recognize national boundaries. But they do have core geographies and habitats where they most often roam—whether to rest, mate, frolic, or feed. Discover a few of the Antarctic’s whales.
graphic whale5 fall2019

Why They Matter

  • Whales are at the top of the food chain and have an important role in the overall health of the marine environment. Unfortunately their large size and mythical aura does not protect them; six out of the 13 great whale species are classified as endangered, even after decades of protection.


  • Population few as 300 North Atlantic right whales remain; other species vary: 10,000-90,000
  • Extinction Risk Endangered
    1. EX

      No reasonable doubt that the last individual has died

    2. EW
      Extinct in the Wild

      Known only to survive in cultivation, in captivity or as a naturalised population

    3. CR
      Critically Endangered

      Facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the Wild

    4. EN

      Facing a high risk of extinction in the Wild

    5. VU

      Facing a high risk of extinction in the Wild

    6. NT
      Near Threatened

      Likely to qualify for a threatened category in the near future

    7. LC
      Least Concern

      Does not qualify for Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, or Near Threatened

Whaling ships equipped with harpoons used to hunt whales in Iceland

"Scientific" Whaling

Although the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling does contain a provision that allows killing of whales for scientific purposes, it was written more than 50 years ago, at a time when no alternatives existed. Now there are non-lethal techniques that provide the data required for management much more efficiently and accurately.

For decades, Japan has been conducting “scientific” whaling operations in the Southern Ocean—a critical feeding area for whales where commercial whaling is forbidden. In May 2010, the Australian government requested the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to order Japan to cease its whaling practices in the Southern Ocean. In March 2014, the ICJ finally ruled that Japan must stop such activities (and Japan announced they will abide)—a true conservation win for whales.


Collisions with ships, entanglement in fishing gear (known as bycatch), and pollution injure and kill whales. Shipping activity and oil and gas development cause noise that can disrupt or even damage whales’ hearing. Such disturbance can exclude whales from critical feeding and breeding grounds, and disrupt their migratory paths. 

Commercial Whaling

Despite a moratorium on commercial whaling and a ban on international trade of whale products, countries such as Iceland continue to hunt whales for their markets. Over 1000 whales a year are killed for such commercial purposes. 

The United States and other International Whaling Commission (IWC) member countries have tried for years to persuade Iceland to end its commercial whaling—which includes hunting of the endangered fin whale—as it undermines the effectiveness of IWC’s commercial whaling ban. In 2011, after pressure from WWF and others, the US government officially declared Iceland in defiance of the IWC ban. Although no sanctions were implemented, the President urged Iceland to cease its commercial whaling activities. In 2013, Iceland resumed its fin whale hunt.


Climate Change

Warming oceans and loss of sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic can affect the habitats and food of whales. Large patches of tiny plants and animals that they feed on will likely move or change in abundance as climate change alters seawater temperature, winds and ocean currents. These changes can mean whales such as humpbacks and blues may have to migrate much further to reach feeding grounds, leaving them with less time to forage for food. The shift in food availability due to climate fluctuations has already hurt the reproductive rates of the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

What WWF Is Doing

WWF-Philippines' biologist taking plancton samples

WWF documents and protects critical feeding and breeding areas and migration routes of whales. We work to establish whale sanctuaries, help shift shipping lanes and curtail seismic surveys that disrupt feeding grounds. We strive to increase awareness of the need for whale conservation at national, regional and international levels. We also create opportunities for local communities to be involved with and profit from whale conservation initiatives.

International Whaling Commission

WWF lobbies to bring “scientific” (hunting whales for research) and commercial whale hunts under the strict control of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The IWC is the body charged with regulating whaling and addressing the vast number of other threats to whales, dolphins and porpoises in our oceans such as shipping, climate change, and bycatch. WWF is working to make the IWC more effective in reducing all threats to whales.

Saving Stranded Whales

Each year, thousands of whales, dolphins, and porpoises become stranded on shorelines around the world. Left unaided, many die within a day or two. In the Philippines, about a dozen stranding events occur a year. WWF offers stranding rescue workshops to local residents. Training includes cetacean (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) biology, identification, threats, and conservation and rescue techniques. Since 1997, WWF has been collaborating with leading Filipino marine mammal scientists to conduct training programs. Such training not only helps ensure the safety of stranded whales and dolphins, but it also increases people’s appreciation for the animals and cultivates environmental stewardship. 


Related Species