“To have a huge, friendly whale willingly approach your boat
and look you straight in the eye is without doubt one of the
most extraordinary experiences on the planet.”
For the past few weeks, my husband and I have been enjoying the gray whales outside our living room window. We spot them when the whales spout a large heart-shaped spray of water. Curious creature that I am, I wanted to learn more about whales spouting.
Contrary to what you may have seen in such movies as Pixar’s otherwise extremely entertaining Finding Nemo, whales don’t spray water out of their blowholes.
Whales’ noses/blowholes, are on the top of their heads, so that they can just barely break the surface to breathe without rising too far out of the water. When inhaling, they flex a muscle which opens the blowhole and take in a big gulp of air. Then, they relax the muscle to close the blowhole, leaving them free to dive down beneath the surface of the water once more without drowning themselves.
It’s exhaling that’s the interesting part. When the whale resurfaces, they have to release the used up air back into the atmosphere just like all other mammals do. This results in a spout, but it isn’t water, at least not at first. The air inside the whale is typically quite warm from the whale’s body heat. When it’s exhaled, it meets the much cooler temperature of the air outside and immediately condenses, making it look like a spout of water. This is also often mixed with mucus —it is a nose, after all.
Every species of whale has a differently shaped blowhole. Some even have two, which results in differently shaped spouts. You can tell what species of whale by seeing their spouts. For instance, a humpback whale’s spout looks like a column; orcas’ spouts are somewhat more bushy; and gray whales’ two blowholes are positioned in such a way that their exhalation results in something of a heart-shaped spout.
Now when I go whale watching next Saturday with my son, just like an experienced whale watcher, we’ll be able to tell which whales are which by their whale spouting.