Can Whales Smell? A Dive into Their Sensory Abilities

can whales smell

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Whales have always fascinated me for as long as I can remember, and I’ve often wondered about their ability to smell.

As enormous creatures navigating the oceans, their senses play a crucial role in their survival.

However, do they actually rely on a sense of smell? and can whales smell at all?

To answer this question, we’ll take a look at whale biology and their olfactory system.

Whales, being mammals, have adapted to life underwater in numerous ways, evolving streamlined bodies and exceptional diving abilities.

Their sense of sight and hearing are well-documented and clearly vital for their survival.

So, where does the sense of smell come into play, if at all?

Can Whales Smell?

First, it’s important to understand that whales aren’t like us when it comes to smelling. They don’t have nostrils like we do, but they do have blowholes on top of their heads.

These blowholes are specialized for breathing, but they’re not designed for smelling.

In fact, whales rely primarily on their sense of hearing to navigate and communicate through the ocean.

But they also use echolocation – emitting sounds and listening to their echos – to help them locate objects, prey, and other whales.

can whales smell
Image by naql

This advanced system compensates for any lack of smelling capability that some whales have.

Now, on to the burning question: Can whales smell? Yes. Well, according to scientific research, they do have olfactory nerves and some sort of olfactory system.

However, these appear to be very limited compared to other mammals.

So, while whales may have some ability to detect smells, it’s probably not significant enough to play a major role in their day-to-day lives.

Instead, they depend on their remarkable auditory and echolocation skills to thrive in their underwater world.

How Do Whales Smell?

Unlike us humans, who mainly rely on our nostrils, whales possess a specialized olfactory organ called the ‘olfactory tubercle’ located in their brains.

When a whale wants to sniff out its environment, the olfactory tubercle helps process the incoming signals.

They receive these signals through their blowhole, which is like a nostril modified for life in water.

As they surface to breathe, air passes through the blowhole, allowing them to detect and respond to various smells.

Whales also possess olfactory receptors, which are proteins responsible for detecting smells.

It’s important to note that each species has its unique set of olfactory receptors; this means that they may detect different smells depending on their specific environment and feeding habits.

One fascinating thing I learned recently is that baleen whales, such as humpbacks and blue whales, have more olfactory receptors compared to toothed whales like orcas and dolphins.

This difference could be linked to their feeding habits, as baleen whales filter-feed on vast amounts of tiny organisms, while toothed whales actively hunt for their prey.

Do All Whale Species Smell?

Not all whale species have the same olfactory capabilities. Some might be better at smelling than others.

Whales are divided into two main categories: baleen whales and toothed whales.

Baleen whales, like the blue whale and the humpback whale, rely more on their baleen plates to filter plankton and krill from the seawater.

On the other hand, toothed whales, such as orcas and dolphins, have teeth and primarily hunt fish and other marine animals.

Now, when it comes to their sense of smell, toothed whales have a very limited olfactory system.

whale tail as the animal submerges
Image by Allan Harris

In fact, they don’t have olfactory bulbs or nerve connections between their blowholes and their brains.

So, I would say that toothed whales don’t really have a sense of smell.

On the flip side, most baleen whales do have some kind of olfactory system, albeit a reduced one compared to land mammals.

For instance, sperm whales have tiny olfactory bulbs, but they have limited function.

Orcas, or killer whales, don’t have any olfactory bulbs at all and are therefore unable to smell.

However, it is still a mystery how much these olfactory capabilities contribute to their overall sensory perception in the ocean.

What Do Whales Use Their Sense Of Smell For?

Unlike land animals, whales don’t rely on their noses to smell; instead, they use specialized olfactory organs located in their heads.

These organs help them detect chemical signals in the water, which are essential for many aspects of their life.

One primary use of a whale’s sense of smell is to help them find food. As filter feeders, they need to locate and swim through patches of krill or plankton.

can whales smell
Image by Bertrand DUPERRIN

Whales can detect krill and plankton thanks to the chemical cues they release in the water, and their sense of smell helps guide the whales toward these all-you-can-eat buffets.

A whale’s sense of smell also plays a vital role in social interactions within its pod.

Whales use personal chemical scents to communicate with each other, identifying group members, mates, and rivals.

These scents allow them to gather information about the emotional or reproductive state of other whales.


So it’s now clear that many whales do have a sense of smell, even though it’s not similar to ours.

In fact, their olfactory system functions differently and is adapted to their aquatic environment which allows them to thrive in the ocean.

Whale smelling happens through their blowhole, which not only allows them to breathe but also helps them detect odors present in the water.

What I find fascinating is that these marine giants can even use their sense of smell for navigation and communication.

They can detect subtle changes in the water’s chemical composition, which helps them find food and orient themselves.

So, when you think of whales and their impressive abilities, let’s not forget that among these is their intriguing sense of smell.

See you in the next one!