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Episode
88

The Amazing Life of Whales

First published on
September 11, 2020
How Stuff Works
-
18
minutes
Animals
Natural world
Environment

Whales are some of the most amazing animals that have ever existed.

From where they come from to how they live their lives, through to the threats that they have faced and how they bring new life in death, it's time to learn more about the amazing life these animals lead.

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Download transcript & key vocabulary pdfDownload transcript & key vocabulary pdf

Transcript

[00:00:00] Hello, hello, hello and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about the amazing life of whales.

[00:00:30] They are the biggest animals on the planet, glide gracefully through the oceans, and have a lot more in common with humans than most people think.

[00:00:41] We haven’t yet done many episodes on the natural world, but what better way to start than this amazing group of animals, and their amazing lives.

[00:00:51] Before we get right into that though, let me just remind you that you can get all of the bonus episodes, plus subtitles, transcripts, and key vocabulary, over on the website, which is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:05] This is also where you can check out becoming a member of Leonardo English, and joining a community of curious minds from all over the world, doing meetups, exchanging ideas, and generally, improving their English in a more interesting way.

[00:01:21] So if that is of interest, and I certainly hope it is, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:30] OK then, let’s talk about the amazing life of whales.

[00:01:35] Now, let’s start with some definitions, because ‘whale’ as a term has come to include different things.

[00:01:44] Some people use ‘whale’ as a synonym, as another word, for Cetacean, which is the group of aquatic mammals that include whales, dolphins and porpoises.

[00:01:59] In fact, Cetaceans are made up of lots of different species, 89 to be precise, and these are broadly split into two groups - the toothed whales, which include for instance dolphins and orca, and the baleen whales, the ones that don’t have teeth but have a kind of grill in their mouth, like the blue whale.

[00:02:25] We’ll come onto this in more detail in a minute.

[00:02:29] So, in today’s episode we’ll be talking about whales in the general sense, because it would be a shame not to mention dolphins, porpoises and orca.

[00:02:41] OK then, now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get on to where they actually came from, where they live, and talk about the amazing lives that these creatures lead.

[00:02:54] Firstly, one common misconception about whales is that they are fish. They are not.

[00:03:00] They are mammals, and their closest land-relative is the hippopotamus, although genetically they went different ways about 40 million years ago.

[00:03:12] Whales come in a huge range of shapes and sizes, from the Maui dolphin, which is around 1 metre long and weighs 50kg, through to the blue whale, which can be 30 metres long and weigh 173 tonnes, or the weight of 25 elephants, not only making it the largest animal in the world today, but also the largest animal that has ever lived.

[00:03:44] Not only can whales be absolutely massive, but they can also live for a very long time. Killer whales, or orca, can live for more than 100 years, and it’s believed that a type of whale called a bowhead whale, which is normally found in the Arctic, can live for more than 200 years, which makes this type of whale the world’s longest living animal.

[00:04:14] As I said at the start of the episode, whales are divided into two broad groups, based on what they have in their mouth - teeth, or a kind of grill to catch plankton, little shrimps or fish.

[00:04:30] The ones with teeth are generally smaller and quicker, and the ones with the grill in their mouth are generally bigger and slower.

[00:04:42] The word for this grill thing is baleen, which I imagine won’t be a word you will need in general conversation. Anyway, there you go. Baleen is the grill that they have in their mouth, and these kinds of whales essentially just glide through the water with their mouths open, hoovering up all the little fish and plankton they can find.

[00:05:07] You might have known this already, but what you probably didn’t know is what this is actually made out of. Baleen is actually made out of keratin, which is the same substance that we have on our fingernails and in our hair, so one way to think about the baleen of a whale is that it is just hair and fingernail matter that's hanging from the top of a whale's mouth. Which makes it sound quite gross, but it is an incredibly effective way of feeding.

[00:05:42] Blue whales, which have baleen, eat up to 3,600 kg of shrimp every day, which is about the weight of a medium sized elephant. Quite something, right?

[00:05:58] They tend to prefer colder water, and so are typically found in the Northern or Southern hemispheres, not so close to the Equator, but they will migrate great distances to find food or to mate, to reproduce.

[00:06:13] Like with many facts about whales, the real numbers here are amazing.

[00:06:20] Several species, including the humpback and blue whales, can travel for over a thousand miles without feeding, and the gray whale, which is a relatively small whale, but still weighs 27 tonnes, it migrates a total of 16,000 kilometres every year, going between its feeding and its breeding grounds.

[00:06:46] Again, to put that in perspective, it’s the distance between London and Sydney.

[00:06:53] But whales don’t make these lengthy journeys on their own. They are highly social animals, and travel in groups.

[00:07:02] Although we do know quite a lot about how whales interact, there is still a huge amount that isn’t understood properly, and it seems that the more we find out, the more we realise that we don’t know.

[00:07:18] But what we do know is pretty amazing.

[00:07:22] Bottlenose dolphins, which are thought to be the most intelligent type of dolphin, and have a brain that’s a similar size to a human’s, they communicate with each other through clicks and whistles.

[00:07:35] Orca, or killer whales, have also learned to talk like dolphins. There was a study of orca where they found that they could imitate the noises of dolphins. This was an amazing discovery, as there are very few animals that are able to actually ‘learn’ sounds - when something like a dog or a cat makes a sound, they just have an innate knowledge about how to make that sound, they haven’t actually learned it.

[00:08:07] There are in fact only six groups of animals that are known to be able to do this.

[00:08:14] Parrots, songbirds, hummingbirds, bats, cetaceans - or whales, and can you guess the last one?

[00:08:24] It’s us, humans. 

[00:08:26] Because whales can ‘learn’ sounds, it’s believed that they pass down knowledge of these sounds through generations.

[00:08:36] Young whales listen to the sounds that their mothers, and the members of the group, make, and they learn them, so that they can teach their children, they can teach their young.

[00:08:50] Because these are learned, they aren’t innate, different whales have different accents, so a blue whale that lives in the North Pacific might make a very different sound to a whale from the South Atlantic, even if they’re exactly the same species. 

[00:09:10] And it’s worth spending a little bit of time talking about, and then listening, to the actual kinds of sounds that whales make, because they don’t just make random sounds.

[00:09:22] They sing.

[00:09:24] These songs can be long and complicated - humpback whales, for example, have songs that last up to 30 minutes, and can be heard from miles away. During the breeding season, humpback whales will sing for hours at a time.

[00:09:43] I’ll play a clip of one in a minute, because it is pretty cool, but listen to the range that it goes. They can make sounds that go 7 octaves, which is almost the entire range of a piano.

[00:09:59] OK, so here we go, this isn’t going to teach you any English, but it’s pretty cool. 

[00:10:05] Here’s a little clip of a whale song. Amazing, right?

[00:10:43] Although we know that whales sing, and different whales sing in different ways, scientists don’t really know exactly why they do it.

[00:10:55] On the subject of communication and intelligence, scientists also observed something pretty cool with a group of dolphins, which was that when one dolphin, one member of the group, was away, the other members were able to imitate the exact noise that the dolphin would make, so the scientists hypothesised that the members could even be gossiping about that dolphin, talking about it behind its back, or at least while it wasn’t there.

[00:11:31] So, whales live a pretty amazing life, and they truly are majestic animals.

[00:11:38] It is, in many ways, a miracle that they are still with us, as there was a time not so long ago that they were almost wiped off the face of the planet by humans.

[00:11:53] Whales had been hunted for centuries, but it wasn’t until the late 19th century, with the invention of the steam ship and the explosive harpoon that it became clear that humans were about to drive whales to extinction.

[00:12:10] Indeed, the 20th century saw almost 60 years of intensive whaling, whale hunting, where an estimated 2 million whales were killed, and multiple whale species were hunted to within an inch of extinction.

[00:12:29] The topic of whaling definitely deserves its own episode, so we won’t go into it in great detail here, but the process includes hunting, killing, then using different parts of the whale for everything from soap, perfume, oil for machines, board games, clothing, umbrellas, explosives, food, and hundreds of other things.

[00:12:55] In 1927, the League of Nations held a conference on whaling, and gradually quotas were introduced, and from the 1960s the number of whales killed every year has been decreasing.

[00:13:12] Still, whales are hunted by 9 different countries, albeit now for ‘cultural’ or ‘scientific’ purposes, commercial whaling, the hunting of whales to sell for a profit, has been banned since 1986.

[00:13:30] And while whales might now not have to be fearful of large, commercial ships coming to launch large harpoons into them and turn them into soap, life as a whale isn’t completely without its threats.

[00:13:47] They are often caught in fishing nets, and it’s estimated that, over the course of a lifetime, 80% of whales in the North Atlantic are caught in a fishing net at least once.

[00:14:01] Loud noises, from the noises of ship engines, to the noises of underwater drills are very disconcerting for whales, and can damage their hearing.

[00:14:13] And whales are killed in large numbers every year just by being hit by ships. Remember, although they can dive great distances, they need to come to the surface to breathe, and the seas and oceans are full of fast-moving, very heavy ships. 

[00:14:34] Indeed, for some of the more endangered whale species, being hit by a ship is the main cause of death, the most dangerous threat for them.

[00:14:45] Luckily, for most whales, their life ends at sea, dying of natural causes. 

[00:14:52] And as in life, so in death, what happens to a whale when it dies is pretty amazing.

[00:15:00] When a whale dies, it often floats on the surface for a while before drifting down all the way to the seabed. 

[00:15:09] When the whale’s body has settled - and here’s another bit of very specific, quite pointless vocabulary for you - a settled whale's body is called a ‘whale fall’.

[00:15:21] Now, whales can be absolutely huge, as we have already learned, and entire ecosystems can live off the whale fall for decades, tens of years. 

[00:15:35] There was research from the University of Hawaii that discovered over 12,000 organisms from 43 different species that were living off one single whale fall, and they even discovered two new types of worm, and a total of 16 completely new species have been discovered at whale falls, species that probably wouldn’t even exist without whales

[00:16:05] So even in death, I think we can all agree that whales are pretty amazing.

[00:16:15] OK then, that is it for the Amazing Life of Whales. They truly are majestic creatures, and I hope that this has given you a little insight into the amazing life they lead.

[00:16:28] The internet is, of course, full of amazing clips of whales doing amazing things. I’ll leave some links in the show notes, so you should definitely give a few of those a watch.

[00:16:39] As always, I would love to know what you thought of the episode. 

[00:16:43] Later on this month, we are going to have a fancy new forum on the website to allow you to discuss episodes. but in the meantime, please feel free to email me directly. 

[00:16:53] You can email hi@leonardoenglish.com

[00:16:57] And as a final reminder, if you are looking to improve your English in a more interesting way, to join a community of curious minds from all over the world, and to unlock the transcripts, subtitles, and key vocabulary, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com

[00:17:16] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English

[00:17:22] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe and I'll catch you in the next episode.


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Become a memberUpgrade to Learner membership
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[00:00:00] Hello, hello, hello and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about the amazing life of whales.

[00:00:30] They are the biggest animals on the planet, glide gracefully through the oceans, and have a lot more in common with humans than most people think.

[00:00:41] We haven’t yet done many episodes on the natural world, but what better way to start than this amazing group of animals, and their amazing lives.

[00:00:51] Before we get right into that though, let me just remind you that you can get all of the bonus episodes, plus subtitles, transcripts, and key vocabulary, over on the website, which is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:05] This is also where you can check out becoming a member of Leonardo English, and joining a community of curious minds from all over the world, doing meetups, exchanging ideas, and generally, improving their English in a more interesting way.

[00:01:21] So if that is of interest, and I certainly hope it is, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:30] OK then, let’s talk about the amazing life of whales.

[00:01:35] Now, let’s start with some definitions, because ‘whale’ as a term has come to include different things.

[00:01:44] Some people use ‘whale’ as a synonym, as another word, for Cetacean, which is the group of aquatic mammals that include whales, dolphins and porpoises.

[00:01:59] In fact, Cetaceans are made up of lots of different species, 89 to be precise, and these are broadly split into two groups - the toothed whales, which include for instance dolphins and orca, and the baleen whales, the ones that don’t have teeth but have a kind of grill in their mouth, like the blue whale.

[00:02:25] We’ll come onto this in more detail in a minute.

[00:02:29] So, in today’s episode we’ll be talking about whales in the general sense, because it would be a shame not to mention dolphins, porpoises and orca.

[00:02:41] OK then, now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get on to where they actually came from, where they live, and talk about the amazing lives that these creatures lead.

[00:02:54] Firstly, one common misconception about whales is that they are fish. They are not.

[00:03:00] They are mammals, and their closest land-relative is the hippopotamus, although genetically they went different ways about 40 million years ago.

[00:03:12] Whales come in a huge range of shapes and sizes, from the Maui dolphin, which is around 1 metre long and weighs 50kg, through to the blue whale, which can be 30 metres long and weigh 173 tonnes, or the weight of 25 elephants, not only making it the largest animal in the world today, but also the largest animal that has ever lived.

[00:03:44] Not only can whales be absolutely massive, but they can also live for a very long time. Killer whales, or orca, can live for more than 100 years, and it’s believed that a type of whale called a bowhead whale, which is normally found in the Arctic, can live for more than 200 years, which makes this type of whale the world’s longest living animal.

[00:04:14] As I said at the start of the episode, whales are divided into two broad groups, based on what they have in their mouth - teeth, or a kind of grill to catch plankton, little shrimps or fish.

[00:04:30] The ones with teeth are generally smaller and quicker, and the ones with the grill in their mouth are generally bigger and slower.

[00:04:42] The word for this grill thing is baleen, which I imagine won’t be a word you will need in general conversation. Anyway, there you go. Baleen is the grill that they have in their mouth, and these kinds of whales essentially just glide through the water with their mouths open, hoovering up all the little fish and plankton they can find.

[00:05:07] You might have known this already, but what you probably didn’t know is what this is actually made out of. Baleen is actually made out of keratin, which is the same substance that we have on our fingernails and in our hair, so one way to think about the baleen of a whale is that it is just hair and fingernail matter that's hanging from the top of a whale's mouth. Which makes it sound quite gross, but it is an incredibly effective way of feeding.

[00:05:42] Blue whales, which have baleen, eat up to 3,600 kg of shrimp every day, which is about the weight of a medium sized elephant. Quite something, right?

[00:05:58] They tend to prefer colder water, and so are typically found in the Northern or Southern hemispheres, not so close to the Equator, but they will migrate great distances to find food or to mate, to reproduce.

[00:06:13] Like with many facts about whales, the real numbers here are amazing.

[00:06:20] Several species, including the humpback and blue whales, can travel for over a thousand miles without feeding, and the gray whale, which is a relatively small whale, but still weighs 27 tonnes, it migrates a total of 16,000 kilometres every year, going between its feeding and its breeding grounds.

[00:06:46] Again, to put that in perspective, it’s the distance between London and Sydney.

[00:06:53] But whales don’t make these lengthy journeys on their own. They are highly social animals, and travel in groups.

[00:07:02] Although we do know quite a lot about how whales interact, there is still a huge amount that isn’t understood properly, and it seems that the more we find out, the more we realise that we don’t know.

[00:07:18] But what we do know is pretty amazing.

[00:07:22] Bottlenose dolphins, which are thought to be the most intelligent type of dolphin, and have a brain that’s a similar size to a human’s, they communicate with each other through clicks and whistles.

[00:07:35] Orca, or killer whales, have also learned to talk like dolphins. There was a study of orca where they found that they could imitate the noises of dolphins. This was an amazing discovery, as there are very few animals that are able to actually ‘learn’ sounds - when something like a dog or a cat makes a sound, they just have an innate knowledge about how to make that sound, they haven’t actually learned it.

[00:08:07] There are in fact only six groups of animals that are known to be able to do this.

[00:08:14] Parrots, songbirds, hummingbirds, bats, cetaceans - or whales, and can you guess the last one?

[00:08:24] It’s us, humans. 

[00:08:26] Because whales can ‘learn’ sounds, it’s believed that they pass down knowledge of these sounds through generations.

[00:08:36] Young whales listen to the sounds that their mothers, and the members of the group, make, and they learn them, so that they can teach their children, they can teach their young.

[00:08:50] Because these are learned, they aren’t innate, different whales have different accents, so a blue whale that lives in the North Pacific might make a very different sound to a whale from the South Atlantic, even if they’re exactly the same species. 

[00:09:10] And it’s worth spending a little bit of time talking about, and then listening, to the actual kinds of sounds that whales make, because they don’t just make random sounds.

[00:09:22] They sing.

[00:09:24] These songs can be long and complicated - humpback whales, for example, have songs that last up to 30 minutes, and can be heard from miles away. During the breeding season, humpback whales will sing for hours at a time.

[00:09:43] I’ll play a clip of one in a minute, because it is pretty cool, but listen to the range that it goes. They can make sounds that go 7 octaves, which is almost the entire range of a piano.

[00:09:59] OK, so here we go, this isn’t going to teach you any English, but it’s pretty cool. 

[00:10:05] Here’s a little clip of a whale song. Amazing, right?

[00:10:43] Although we know that whales sing, and different whales sing in different ways, scientists don’t really know exactly why they do it.

[00:10:55] On the subject of communication and intelligence, scientists also observed something pretty cool with a group of dolphins, which was that when one dolphin, one member of the group, was away, the other members were able to imitate the exact noise that the dolphin would make, so the scientists hypothesised that the members could even be gossiping about that dolphin, talking about it behind its back, or at least while it wasn’t there.

[00:11:31] So, whales live a pretty amazing life, and they truly are majestic animals.

[00:11:38] It is, in many ways, a miracle that they are still with us, as there was a time not so long ago that they were almost wiped off the face of the planet by humans.

[00:11:53] Whales had been hunted for centuries, but it wasn’t until the late 19th century, with the invention of the steam ship and the explosive harpoon that it became clear that humans were about to drive whales to extinction.

[00:12:10] Indeed, the 20th century saw almost 60 years of intensive whaling, whale hunting, where an estimated 2 million whales were killed, and multiple whale species were hunted to within an inch of extinction.

[00:12:29] The topic of whaling definitely deserves its own episode, so we won’t go into it in great detail here, but the process includes hunting, killing, then using different parts of the whale for everything from soap, perfume, oil for machines, board games, clothing, umbrellas, explosives, food, and hundreds of other things.

[00:12:55] In 1927, the League of Nations held a conference on whaling, and gradually quotas were introduced, and from the 1960s the number of whales killed every year has been decreasing.

[00:13:12] Still, whales are hunted by 9 different countries, albeit now for ‘cultural’ or ‘scientific’ purposes, commercial whaling, the hunting of whales to sell for a profit, has been banned since 1986.

[00:13:30] And while whales might now not have to be fearful of large, commercial ships coming to launch large harpoons into them and turn them into soap, life as a whale isn’t completely without its threats.

[00:13:47] They are often caught in fishing nets, and it’s estimated that, over the course of a lifetime, 80% of whales in the North Atlantic are caught in a fishing net at least once.

[00:14:01] Loud noises, from the noises of ship engines, to the noises of underwater drills are very disconcerting for whales, and can damage their hearing.

[00:14:13] And whales are killed in large numbers every year just by being hit by ships. Remember, although they can dive great distances, they need to come to the surface to breathe, and the seas and oceans are full of fast-moving, very heavy ships. 

[00:14:34] Indeed, for some of the more endangered whale species, being hit by a ship is the main cause of death, the most dangerous threat for them.

[00:14:45] Luckily, for most whales, their life ends at sea, dying of natural causes. 

[00:14:52] And as in life, so in death, what happens to a whale when it dies is pretty amazing.

[00:15:00] When a whale dies, it often floats on the surface for a while before drifting down all the way to the seabed. 

[00:15:09] When the whale’s body has settled - and here’s another bit of very specific, quite pointless vocabulary for you - a settled whale's body is called a ‘whale fall’.

[00:15:21] Now, whales can be absolutely huge, as we have already learned, and entire ecosystems can live off the whale fall for decades, tens of years. 

[00:15:35] There was research from the University of Hawaii that discovered over 12,000 organisms from 43 different species that were living off one single whale fall, and they even discovered two new types of worm, and a total of 16 completely new species have been discovered at whale falls, species that probably wouldn’t even exist without whales

[00:16:05] So even in death, I think we can all agree that whales are pretty amazing.

[00:16:15] OK then, that is it for the Amazing Life of Whales. They truly are majestic creatures, and I hope that this has given you a little insight into the amazing life they lead.

[00:16:28] The internet is, of course, full of amazing clips of whales doing amazing things. I’ll leave some links in the show notes, so you should definitely give a few of those a watch.

[00:16:39] As always, I would love to know what you thought of the episode. 

[00:16:43] Later on this month, we are going to have a fancy new forum on the website to allow you to discuss episodes. but in the meantime, please feel free to email me directly. 

[00:16:53] You can email hi@leonardoenglish.com

[00:16:57] And as a final reminder, if you are looking to improve your English in a more interesting way, to join a community of curious minds from all over the world, and to unlock the transcripts, subtitles, and key vocabulary, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com

[00:17:16] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English

[00:17:22] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[00:00:00] Hello, hello, hello and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about the amazing life of whales.

[00:00:30] They are the biggest animals on the planet, glide gracefully through the oceans, and have a lot more in common with humans than most people think.

[00:00:41] We haven’t yet done many episodes on the natural world, but what better way to start than this amazing group of animals, and their amazing lives.

[00:00:51] Before we get right into that though, let me just remind you that you can get all of the bonus episodes, plus subtitles, transcripts, and key vocabulary, over on the website, which is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:05] This is also where you can check out becoming a member of Leonardo English, and joining a community of curious minds from all over the world, doing meetups, exchanging ideas, and generally, improving their English in a more interesting way.

[00:01:21] So if that is of interest, and I certainly hope it is, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:30] OK then, let’s talk about the amazing life of whales.

[00:01:35] Now, let’s start with some definitions, because ‘whale’ as a term has come to include different things.

[00:01:44] Some people use ‘whale’ as a synonym, as another word, for Cetacean, which is the group of aquatic mammals that include whales, dolphins and porpoises.

[00:01:59] In fact, Cetaceans are made up of lots of different species, 89 to be precise, and these are broadly split into two groups - the toothed whales, which include for instance dolphins and orca, and the baleen whales, the ones that don’t have teeth but have a kind of grill in their mouth, like the blue whale.

[00:02:25] We’ll come onto this in more detail in a minute.

[00:02:29] So, in today’s episode we’ll be talking about whales in the general sense, because it would be a shame not to mention dolphins, porpoises and orca.

[00:02:41] OK then, now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get on to where they actually came from, where they live, and talk about the amazing lives that these creatures lead.

[00:02:54] Firstly, one common misconception about whales is that they are fish. They are not.

[00:03:00] They are mammals, and their closest land-relative is the hippopotamus, although genetically they went different ways about 40 million years ago.

[00:03:12] Whales come in a huge range of shapes and sizes, from the Maui dolphin, which is around 1 metre long and weighs 50kg, through to the blue whale, which can be 30 metres long and weigh 173 tonnes, or the weight of 25 elephants, not only making it the largest animal in the world today, but also the largest animal that has ever lived.

[00:03:44] Not only can whales be absolutely massive, but they can also live for a very long time. Killer whales, or orca, can live for more than 100 years, and it’s believed that a type of whale called a bowhead whale, which is normally found in the Arctic, can live for more than 200 years, which makes this type of whale the world’s longest living animal.

[00:04:14] As I said at the start of the episode, whales are divided into two broad groups, based on what they have in their mouth - teeth, or a kind of grill to catch plankton, little shrimps or fish.

[00:04:30] The ones with teeth are generally smaller and quicker, and the ones with the grill in their mouth are generally bigger and slower.

[00:04:42] The word for this grill thing is baleen, which I imagine won’t be a word you will need in general conversation. Anyway, there you go. Baleen is the grill that they have in their mouth, and these kinds of whales essentially just glide through the water with their mouths open, hoovering up all the little fish and plankton they can find.

[00:05:07] You might have known this already, but what you probably didn’t know is what this is actually made out of. Baleen is actually made out of keratin, which is the same substance that we have on our fingernails and in our hair, so one way to think about the baleen of a whale is that it is just hair and fingernail matter that's hanging from the top of a whale's mouth. Which makes it sound quite gross, but it is an incredibly effective way of feeding.

[00:05:42] Blue whales, which have baleen, eat up to 3,600 kg of shrimp every day, which is about the weight of a medium sized elephant. Quite something, right?

[00:05:58] They tend to prefer colder water, and so are typically found in the Northern or Southern hemispheres, not so close to the Equator, but they will migrate great distances to find food or to mate, to reproduce.

[00:06:13] Like with many facts about whales, the real numbers here are amazing.

[00:06:20] Several species, including the humpback and blue whales, can travel for over a thousand miles without feeding, and the gray whale, which is a relatively small whale, but still weighs 27 tonnes, it migrates a total of 16,000 kilometres every year, going between its feeding and its breeding grounds.

[00:06:46] Again, to put that in perspective, it’s the distance between London and Sydney.

[00:06:53] But whales don’t make these lengthy journeys on their own. They are highly social animals, and travel in groups.

[00:07:02] Although we do know quite a lot about how whales interact, there is still a huge amount that isn’t understood properly, and it seems that the more we find out, the more we realise that we don’t know.

[00:07:18] But what we do know is pretty amazing.

[00:07:22] Bottlenose dolphins, which are thought to be the most intelligent type of dolphin, and have a brain that’s a similar size to a human’s, they communicate with each other through clicks and whistles.

[00:07:35] Orca, or killer whales, have also learned to talk like dolphins. There was a study of orca where they found that they could imitate the noises of dolphins. This was an amazing discovery, as there are very few animals that are able to actually ‘learn’ sounds - when something like a dog or a cat makes a sound, they just have an innate knowledge about how to make that sound, they haven’t actually learned it.

[00:08:07] There are in fact only six groups of animals that are known to be able to do this.

[00:08:14] Parrots, songbirds, hummingbirds, bats, cetaceans - or whales, and can you guess the last one?

[00:08:24] It’s us, humans. 

[00:08:26] Because whales can ‘learn’ sounds, it’s believed that they pass down knowledge of these sounds through generations.

[00:08:36] Young whales listen to the sounds that their mothers, and the members of the group, make, and they learn them, so that they can teach their children, they can teach their young.

[00:08:50] Because these are learned, they aren’t innate, different whales have different accents, so a blue whale that lives in the North Pacific might make a very different sound to a whale from the South Atlantic, even if they’re exactly the same species. 

[00:09:10] And it’s worth spending a little bit of time talking about, and then listening, to the actual kinds of sounds that whales make, because they don’t just make random sounds.

[00:09:22] They sing.

[00:09:24] These songs can be long and complicated - humpback whales, for example, have songs that last up to 30 minutes, and can be heard from miles away. During the breeding season, humpback whales will sing for hours at a time.

[00:09:43] I’ll play a clip of one in a minute, because it is pretty cool, but listen to the range that it goes. They can make sounds that go 7 octaves, which is almost the entire range of a piano.

[00:09:59] OK, so here we go, this isn’t going to teach you any English, but it’s pretty cool. 

[00:10:05] Here’s a little clip of a whale song. Amazing, right?

[00:10:43] Although we know that whales sing, and different whales sing in different ways, scientists don’t really know exactly why they do it.

[00:10:55] On the subject of communication and intelligence, scientists also observed something pretty cool with a group of dolphins, which was that when one dolphin, one member of the group, was away, the other members were able to imitate the exact noise that the dolphin would make, so the scientists hypothesised that the members could even be gossiping about that dolphin, talking about it behind its back, or at least while it wasn’t there.

[00:11:31] So, whales live a pretty amazing life, and they truly are majestic animals.

[00:11:38] It is, in many ways, a miracle that they are still with us, as there was a time not so long ago that they were almost wiped off the face of the planet by humans.

[00:11:53] Whales had been hunted for centuries, but it wasn’t until the late 19th century, with the invention of the steam ship and the explosive harpoon that it became clear that humans were about to drive whales to extinction.

[00:12:10] Indeed, the 20th century saw almost 60 years of intensive whaling, whale hunting, where an estimated 2 million whales were killed, and multiple whale species were hunted to within an inch of extinction.

[00:12:29] The topic of whaling definitely deserves its own episode, so we won’t go into it in great detail here, but the process includes hunting, killing, then using different parts of the whale for everything from soap, perfume, oil for machines, board games, clothing, umbrellas, explosives, food, and hundreds of other things.

[00:12:55] In 1927, the League of Nations held a conference on whaling, and gradually quotas were introduced, and from the 1960s the number of whales killed every year has been decreasing.

[00:13:12] Still, whales are hunted by 9 different countries, albeit now for ‘cultural’ or ‘scientific’ purposes, commercial whaling, the hunting of whales to sell for a profit, has been banned since 1986.

[00:13:30] And while whales might now not have to be fearful of large, commercial ships coming to launch large harpoons into them and turn them into soap, life as a whale isn’t completely without its threats.

[00:13:47] They are often caught in fishing nets, and it’s estimated that, over the course of a lifetime, 80% of whales in the North Atlantic are caught in a fishing net at least once.

[00:14:01] Loud noises, from the noises of ship engines, to the noises of underwater drills are very disconcerting for whales, and can damage their hearing.

[00:14:13] And whales are killed in large numbers every year just by being hit by ships. Remember, although they can dive great distances, they need to come to the surface to breathe, and the seas and oceans are full of fast-moving, very heavy ships. 

[00:14:34] Indeed, for some of the more endangered whale species, being hit by a ship is the main cause of death, the most dangerous threat for them.

[00:14:45] Luckily, for most whales, their life ends at sea, dying of natural causes. 

[00:14:52] And as in life, so in death, what happens to a whale when it dies is pretty amazing.

[00:15:00] When a whale dies, it often floats on the surface for a while before drifting down all the way to the seabed. 

[00:15:09] When the whale’s body has settled - and here’s another bit of very specific, quite pointless vocabulary for you - a settled whale's body is called a ‘whale fall’.

[00:15:21] Now, whales can be absolutely huge, as we have already learned, and entire ecosystems can live off the whale fall for decades, tens of years. 

[00:15:35] There was research from the University of Hawaii that discovered over 12,000 organisms from 43 different species that were living off one single whale fall, and they even discovered two new types of worm, and a total of 16 completely new species have been discovered at whale falls, species that probably wouldn’t even exist without whales

[00:16:05] So even in death, I think we can all agree that whales are pretty amazing.

[00:16:15] OK then, that is it for the Amazing Life of Whales. They truly are majestic creatures, and I hope that this has given you a little insight into the amazing life they lead.

[00:16:28] The internet is, of course, full of amazing clips of whales doing amazing things. I’ll leave some links in the show notes, so you should definitely give a few of those a watch.

[00:16:39] As always, I would love to know what you thought of the episode. 

[00:16:43] Later on this month, we are going to have a fancy new forum on the website to allow you to discuss episodes. but in the meantime, please feel free to email me directly. 

[00:16:53] You can email hi@leonardoenglish.com

[00:16:57] And as a final reminder, if you are looking to improve your English in a more interesting way, to join a community of curious minds from all over the world, and to unlock the transcripts, subtitles, and key vocabulary, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com

[00:17:16] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English

[00:17:22] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe and I'll catch you in the next episode.