Whales are one of the largest creatures ever to live on Earth, yet many species face serious challenges in an environmentally changing world. Multiple species of whales are listed as endangered by conservation groups, including the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Endangered whales are at risk for many reasons; many scientists and environmental experts believe they need protection and maintain sustainable populations.
Until the advent of commercial whale hunting, most whale species flourished throughout the planet's oceans. When interest in whales shifted from subsistence hunting to mass slaughter for valuable oil, meat, and skin, many species were pushed to the brink of extinction. Thanks to protection efforts in the late 20th centuries, some endangered whales have staged a comeback, but some believe that continued hunting in some waters and environmental factors make it unlikely that whale populations will ever return to their once vast numbers.
Endangered whales include the formidable blue whale, the largest creature to exist on the planet. Larger than any known dinosaur, this marine giant is consistently elusive; scientists have little data about mating, birth, or even where blue whales travel. Blue whales feature a long, slim body line that can reach over 100 feet (30.48 meters) in length. Despite their size, rare sightings of these creatures make population counts difficult. Although the International Whaling Commission (IWC) outlawed commercial hunting of these endangered whales in the 1960s, it is not known whether the population has staged a significant comeback.
The northern right whale, so named because they were considered the “right” whale to kill, had its population decimated by commercial hunting. Slow-moving and gentle, these creatures made easy targets for decades. In the North Atlantic Ocean, even a ban on hunting has done little to help these endangered whales recover; estimates suggest that less than 1000 northern right whales still live in the North Atlantic.
The humpback whale is a baleen whale, named for its habit of hunching up its broad back when preparing to dive. These endangered whales are known for spectacular leaps from the water, known as breeches. In addition, the humpbacks are noted for their haunting song, which has mystified scientists for generations. Although there is no verified explanation for humpback whale song, almost all humpback whales in a region sing the same song, which may evolve each year. The worldwide population of these endangered whales is estimated at approximately 20,000 animals, down from about 1.5 million believed to exist before the advent of whaling.