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Whales: Overview

Sperm whale tail as it divesWhales are incredibly diverse marine mammals, ranging from small pygmy whales to the blue whale, the largest animal in the world.

There are two categories of whales, baleen whales and toothed whales. Baleen whales have a broom-like structure in their mouths that allows them to filter feed on small organisms while toothed whales use teeth to capture prey.

Whales are magnificent creatures, with some species able to migrate thousands of miles and dive to the depths of the oceans. But today, a variety of harmful human activities threatens their continued existence.

Whales and Commercial Fishing

Commercial fisheries use a variety of technologies to capture their targeted fish, including pots, trawls and gill nets. Unfortunately, these technologies often catch non-targeted species, such as sea turtles and whales.

For example, the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale can become entangled in lobster pots or gillnets fishing along the Atlantic coast of the U.S.  Oceana works to decrease bycatch defending the U.S. legislation that protects marine mammals and pushing the National Marine Fisheries Service to reduce marine mammal bycatch.

Whales and Sonar

Sonar (SOund NAvigation and Ranging) is a technology that uses sound waves to gather information underwater and can aid in navigation, communication, and detection of objects. Used by the Navy, commercial fisheries, scientists and many others, sonar is a powerful tool for a variety of applications.

However, the sound emitted by active sonar can interfere with the behavior of toothed whales, which use echolocation or biosonar to communicate and to find prey. It can also cause these whales to become disoriented, rise to the surface too rapidly, and die as a result.


Despite their intelligence and importance in the marine ecosystem, whales have been hunted for their meat for hundreds of years. This practice caused whale populations around the world to crash, and most countries outlawed commercial whaling due to its undeniable impact on whale populations. Sadly, a handful of countries continue to hunt whales.