American Oceans

How Do Whales Die?

Whales are some of the largest creatures on earth, and they play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of marine ecosystems.

a dead whale in the water surrounded by scavenging birds

However, despite their size and strength, whales are not invincible.

Like all living organisms, they are vulnerable to disease, predation, and environmental factors that can lead to their demise. So, how do whales die?

Understanding how whales die is crucial for conservation efforts and for protecting these magnificent creatures from harm.

By identifying the various threats to whale populations, researchers and conservationists can work to mitigate these risks and ensure the long-term survival of these important animals.

Natural Causes of Death

a blue whale deep underwater

Whales are known to have a long lifespan, with some species living up to 100 years. However, like all living organisms, they eventually die.

While human activities such as hunting, entanglement in fishing gear, and pollution have been major causes of whale deaths, natural causes of death also exist. In this section, we will explore some of the natural causes of whale deaths.

Old Age

Old age is a natural cause of death in whales, as it is in all living organisms. As whales age, they become more susceptible to diseases and infections, and their body systems start to deteriorate.

The exact age at which whales die of old age varies between species, but it is generally believed to be around 60-70 years.

Researchers have found that older whales tend to have more lesions and tumors on their bodies, indicating that they have been exposed to various environmental stressors over their lifetime.

Illness and Infection

Whales, like all animals, are susceptible to various illnesses and infections. In some cases, these illnesses can be fatal.

For example, respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, can be deadly for whales.

Researchers have also found that some whales carry infectious diseases, such as brucellosis and tuberculosis, which can be transmitted to other whales and cause illness and death.


Whales require large amounts of food to sustain their massive bodies. When food is scarce, some whales may starve to death.

This can happen if the whale’s prey population declines, or if the whale is unable to find enough food due to changes in ocean conditions. In some cases, whales may also become stranded on beaches and die of starvation.

Complications Giving Birth

Whales, like all mammals, give birth to live young. However, giving birth can be a dangerous process for both the mother and the calf.

In some cases, complications during birth can result in the death of the mother or the calf. For example, a mother whale may experience difficulty giving birth due to the size of the calf or the position of the fetus.

This can result in a prolonged and difficult labor, which can be fatal for both the mother and the calf.

Human Related Causes of Death

a whale diving in front of a ship

Whales face a range of threats from human activities that can lead to their death. Some of the most common human-related causes of death are pollution and debris, entanglement in fishing nets, ship strikes, and whaling and hunting.

Pollution and Debris

Pollution and debris in the ocean can be deadly for whales. Whales can ingest plastic, which can cause blockages in their digestive system and lead to starvation.

They can also become entangled in debris, which can lead to injuries or drowning. Oil spills can also be deadly for whales, as they can coat the whale’s skin and fur, making it difficult for them to regulate their body temperature.

Entanglement in Fishing Nets

Entanglement in fishing nets is a major cause of death for whales. Whales can become entangled in nets and other fishing gear, which can cause injuries or drowning.

The problem is particularly acute for some species, such as the North Atlantic right whale, which is critically endangered due to entanglement in fishing gear.

Ship Strikes

Injuries from massive ships can also be deadly for whales. Whales can be hit by ships, which can cause injuries or death.

This is particularly common in areas with heavy shipping traffic, such as shipping lanes or ports.

Whaling and Hunting

Whaling and hunting are also major causes of death for whales. Although there is a global whaling ban, some countries still engage in whaling, such as Japan, Iceland, and Norway.

Illegal hunting also occurs in some areas. Whales die as a result of being hunted for their meat, oil, and other products.

It is important to note that human-related causes of death are preventable. Efforts to reduce pollution, regulate fishing gear, and reduce ship strikes can help to protect whales from these threats.

The global whaling ban has also helped to reduce the number of whales killed by hunting, although illegal hunting still occurs in some areas.

Beaching and Stranding

lots of dead whales on the beach

Whales are known to beach and strand themselves on shorelines all around the world.

This phenomenon is not fully understood, but it is believed to occur due to a variety of reasons, including illness, injury, disorientation, and navigational errors.

High Tide and Shallow Water

Whales are more likely to beach during high tide when water levels are higher. This is because they can be pushed closer to the shore by strong currents, making it easier for them to become stranded in shallow water.

Shallow water can also make it difficult for whales to swim back to deeper water, which can lead to exhaustion and death.

Stranded on Land

When whales become stranded on land, they are in grave danger. Their weight and size make it nearly impossible for them to move, and their organs can become crushed under their own weight.

Stranded whales are also exposed to the elements, which can cause dehydration, sunburn, and hypothermia.

Beaching and stranding can be caused by a variety of factors, including disease, injury, disorientation, and navigational errors.

In some cases, human activities such as underwater sonar testing and fishing nets can also contribute to beaching and stranding events.

It is important to have a coordinated response protocol in place to ensure that stranded whales are quickly and safely rescued, and that their health and well-being are taken into account.


humpback whales in the ocean

Whales are apex predators themselves, but they are not immune to predation. They can fall prey to other marine animals, including killer whales (Orcinus orca) and great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias).

Killer Whales

Killer whales, also known as orcas, are among the most efficient predators in the ocean. They can take down a variety of prey, including fish, seals, sea lions, and even other whales.

In fact, some populations of killer whales have developed specialized hunting techniques to target specific types of whales, such as humpbacks and gray whales.

Killer whales are known to attack whales in groups, often targeting calves or weakened individuals.

They use their intelligence and communication skills to coordinate their attacks, which can be quite brutal. They may ram their prey, bite it, or drown it by holding it underwater.

While killer whales are not a major threat to healthy adult whales, they can have a significant impact on whale populations.

For example, studies have shown that killer whales in the North Pacific have caused a decline in the population of humpback whales in that region.

Post Death Scenarios

a diver swimming past a whale fall

When a whale dies, its body can provide a valuable source of nutrients for other marine organisms.

This process is known as a whale fall and can have a significant impact on the surrounding ecosystem.

In this section, we will explore what happens to a whale’s body after death, including the role of scavengers and bacteria, and how the whale skeleton can contribute to the ecosystem.

Scavengers and Bacteria

After a whale dies, it begins to sink to the ocean floor. As it sinks, it provides a food source for scavengers such as hagfish, sharks, and crabs.

These animals can quickly strip the whale’s body of its flesh, leaving behind only the bones.

Bacteria also play an important role in the decomposition of the whale’s body, breaking down the organic matter and releasing nutrients into the surrounding water.

Researchers have been studying whale falls for decades, and they have discovered that these events can support a unique ecosystem.

In addition to scavengers and bacteria, other organisms such as worms, snails, and octopuses can also be found at whale falls.

These communities can last for years, providing a valuable source of food and nutrients for marine mammals and other creatures.

Whale Skeleton and Ecosystem

Once the scavengers have stripped the whale’s body of its flesh, the remaining skeleton can continue to support the surrounding ecosystem.

The whale bones provide a hard substrate for other organisms to attach to, including deep-sea corals and sponges.

These organisms can help to create a complex ecosystem that supports a wide range of marine life.

In addition to providing a habitat for other organisms, the whale skeleton can also act as a source of nutrients.

As the bones slowly break down, they release minerals such as calcium and phosphorus into the surrounding water.

These nutrients can be taken up by other organisms, helping to support the overall health of the ecosystem.

Whale Species and Characteristics

a group of bowhead whales swiming in the ocean

Whales are fascinating creatures that inhabit the world’s oceans and seas. They are warm-blooded mammals that breathe air through blowholes on the top of their heads.

There are two main types of whales: baleen and toothed whales.

Baleen whales have comb-like plates in their mouths that they use to filter food from the water, while toothed whales have teeth that they use to catch and eat prey.

Fin and Cartilage

Whales have a dorsal fin on their backs that helps them to stabilize and steer themselves in the water.

The dorsal fin is made of cartilage, which is a flexible and lightweight material that helps the whale to move quickly and efficiently through the water.

The cartilage also provides support and protection for the whale’s spine.

Blubber and Meat

Whales have a thick layer of blubber under their skin that helps them to stay warm in cold water.

Blubber is a layer of fat that also provides energy for the whale when food is scarce.

The meat of whales is also a source of food for humans, although hunting whales for their meat is controversial and illegal in many parts of the world.

Dolphins and Aquatic Animals

Whales are known to interact with other aquatic animals, including dolphins. Some species of dolphins have been observed swimming and playing with whales, while others have been seen riding the waves created by whales as they swim.

Whales are also known to interact with other marine animals, such as sharks and seals, although these interactions are usually less friendly.

Frequently Asked Questions

What happens when whales die on land?

When whales die on land, they are no longer supported by the buoyancy of water, which can cause their internal organs to collapse under their own weight.

This can lead to the whale’s body swelling and potentially exploding due to the buildup of gases. The decomposition process can also attract scavengers and create a strong odor.

How long does a whale fall last?

A whale fall is when a whale’s body sinks to the ocean floor and becomes a source of food and nutrients for deep-sea creatures.

The duration of a whale fall can vary depending on the size of the whale and the depth of the ocean floor. It can last from several months to years.

Do whales suffocate?

Whales are mammals and need to breathe air to survive. When a whale is unable to surface to breathe, it can suffocate.

This can happen if the whale is entangled in fishing gear, trapped in ice, or beached on land.

Why do whales die on land?

Whales can become stranded on land for various reasons, such as illness, injury, disorientation, or following prey too close to shore.

Once beached, they are unable to return to the water, which can lead to dehydration, overheating, and organ failure.

Why do whales die when taken out of water?

Whales are adapted to living in water and their bodies are designed to withstand the pressure and buoyancy of being submerged.

When taken out of water, their body weight can put stress on their internal organs, leading to collapse and potentially death.

What do they do when a whale dies?

When a whale dies, authorities may take steps to remove the body to prevent public health hazards and to study the whale’s remains for research purposes.

In some cases, the whale’s body may be left to decompose naturally, which can provide important nutrients to the ecosystem.

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