If you’ve ever been on a whale watching tour before, you may have had the opportunity to see water spray and shoot up above the surface of the ocean like a fountain when a whale is near the ocean’s surface. This is called a whale’s spout!
Because whales are marine mammals, they have noses and lungs and are all required to breathe. The way they breathe and how often they need to breathe is obviously quite different from humans and other land-mammals. Whales don’t need to breathe very often and only do so when they are at the surface of the ocean, so they have to inhale and exhale a lot of air very quickly to sustain them for long periods while they are underwater.
Whales are part of the cetacean family and have what are called “blowholes” located at the top of their heads, which allow them to breathe. This blowhole is similar to that of a nostril of other mammals, that through evolution, eventually migrated to the top of their head. Their process of exhalation at the ocean’s surface through their blowholes cause what are referred to as whale spouts or “blows”.
When a whale comes to the surface of the ocean after swimming, it will fully expel and exhale its old air quickly, all in one massive breath. Due to its power and strength, whales empty their lungs with great force, causing the air to shoot upwards a great distance, sometimes 10, 20, or even 30 feet. The air that whales exhale, referred to as the “blow”, is typically warmer than the temperature of the ocean water, which causes condensed water vapor to develop and appear to look like steam.
Right below the blowhole are air sacs that whales use for echolocation, the process of omitting biological sonar to identify where different animals or objects are relative to them. When whales exhale through their blowhole, they also release the air in these air sac cavities, which produces a sound similar to how it sounds when air releases from a balloon.
When whales dive back underwater, their nasal plug covers the passage to the blowhole and the muscles are at ease. But, whenever the whales need to inhale and exhale at the surface of the ocean, these muscles contract and open the blowhole to allow that process to happen again.
When a whale exhales, there is usually water resting on top of the blowhole which makes the blow look like a giant fountain or splash in combination with the water vapor that develops. Blow spouts are extremely helpful in identifying whales at sea, because the blow is large enough to be seen from far distances. The height, shape and size of the blow varies for different whale species, making it incredibly helpful to identify whales while on a boat or ship on the ocean.
Below are some common characteristics of blow spouts for different types of whales.
In addition to whale spouts, there are other common ways to identify whales at sea including whale dorsal fins and other common behavior characteristic of certain species. For more information on whale identification, check out our blog on how to identify whales at sea here.