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Whales are large, intelligent sea creatures that belong to the group of aquatic mammals called cetaceans. The word “cetacean” is used to describe all whales, dolphins, and porpoises in the order Cetacea. Whales range in size from less than nine feet long (the length of the dwarf sperm whale) to up to 100 feet long (the length of the giant blue whale, which is the largest creature in the animal kingdom).

Unlike fish that breathe using gills, cetaceans breathe through their blowholes. Blowholes are a whale’s nostrils and are located on the top of the whale’s head. There are two types of cetaceans: toothed whales and baleen whales. Toothed whales have one blowhole, while baleen whales have two. Toothed whales have peg-like teeth that they use to catch fish, squid, and marine mammals, all of which they swallow whole. Baleen whales have hundreds of comb-like plates of baleen
(a flexible yet durable material that is used as a filter) hanging from their upper jaws. Baleen whales feed by gulping large amounts of water containing thousands of fish or plankton, and then forcing the water out in between the baleen plates, which leaves the prey trapped inside. The prey is then swallowed whole.

This month, we will be exploring the noisiest whale in the sea – the humpback whale.

The Humpback Whale

The humpback whale is a species of the baleen whale and is known for its majestic “songs,” which can last twenty minutes and can be repeated for hours on end. They have a variety of complex sounds that include frequencies beyond the threshold of human hearing, and their “songs” can be heard from great distances throughout the oceans.

The humpback whale is one of the larger species of whales. It can reach up to fifty-two feet in length, and it can weigh over 80,000 pounds. It has extremely long flippers that are up to
one-third of its body length; these are the largest flippers of any whale! The humpback whale has a distinctive hump of fatty tissue just in front of its dorsal fin (the fin on its back). It also has a bulky head with bumpy tubercles (knobs), and its skin is usually scarred and has patches covered with barnacles. The humpback is a powerful swimmer and is quite the acrobat. It uses its massive tail fin, called a fluke, to propel itself through the ocean, and it regularly leaps and twirls completely out of the water, high above the surface, slapping at the water with its flippers and flukes.

Like all baleen whales, the humpback whale has two blowholes and does not have teeth. It primarily feeds off of krill and plankton. Humpbacks are gulpers, filter feeders that alternatively swim and then gulp a mouthful of plankton or fish. The humpback will eat between 4,500 and 6,000 pounds of food each day during the feeding season.

Humpbacks are found in all oceans around the world. They spend the summer months in the colder polar waters, and then, in the winter, they migrate south to the warmer tropical waters.

Torah Talk

Every Yom Kippur we read the haftarah that relates the story of Yonah and the whale. Hashem sent Yonah as a messenger to the city of Ninveh. The people in Ninveh had sinned to such a degree that Hashem was ready to destroy the city — unless the people there did teshuvah immediately, Yonah was to relay this message to them — but he did not want to fulfill this mission.

Yonah was concerned for the welfare of the Jewish people, who were also guilty of grievous sins. He feared that the evil people of Ninveh would heed his warning and repent, which would make the Jewish people look bad and bring Hashem’s anger on them. Therefore, Yonah chose to flee from his mission, rather than bring down retribution on the heads of his people.

Yonah escaped on a ship, but a sudden storm threatened to tear the ship apart. The sailors cast lots, and Yonah was tossed into the sea, where he was swallowed by a whale. From the belly of the whale, Yonah cried out to Hashem and pleaded for deliverance. Hashem answered Yonah’s prayer, and the whale spit him out onto the shore. Yonah then immediately went to Ninveh and relayed Hashem’s message to the people. The people repented, and the city of Ninveh was spared.

There are many lessons to be learned from this story. We learn about the power of teshuvah — how it can save an entire city from destruction. But we can also learn a deeper lesson, about a person’s obligation to obey Hashem’s command, no matter how he feels about doing it.

Yonah certainly had no illusions about thwarting the Divine plan; he simply had such an overpowering love for the Jewish people that he could not bear to be the agent of their misfortune. But Hashem did not choose to send a different agent to Ninveh. Instead, He sent a storm and a whale to force Yonah to accept his mission. The message to Yonah was clear: he had no right to weigh the pros and cons of obeying Hashem’s command. A person has to subjugate himself completely to the Divine will, to obey without question, reservation, or rationalization.

Bubble Trouble

One method that the humpback whales use to hunt their prey is blowing bubbles.

This method of hunting is known as bubble net feeding. Bubble net feeding involves anywhere from four to twenty humpback whales, all working together to herd schools of fish such as herring.

The way the bubble net trap works is as follows: A group of humpbacks will dive down to herring schools, where one whale (the bubble-blower) will descend below the school of herring and swim  around and around it, releasing a ring of bubbles from its blowhole. As this air rises to the surface, it forms a curtain of bubbles that acts as a physical barrier to frighten the herring and keep the school of  them in place. While this is happening, another whale in the group will sing resonating vocalizations, which frighten the fish even more and cause them to swim together in tight balls within the bubble net. The whales then position themselves below the tight balls of fish and lunge, mouths open, to the surface, through the center of the bubble net. This motion drives the fish to the surface, where they are trapped from all sides — the surface of the water above, the bubble curtain on the sides, and the open mouths of the whales below.