The Painful Truth: Do Whales Feel Pain?

do whales feel pain

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Whales can be found in every ocean across the world, from warm, temperate, and tropical waters to the icy polar regions of the Arctic.

The commercial whaling period during the mid-19th and 20th centuries was nothing short of horrific, it wiped out so many whales for the purpose of selling their meat and body parts for money.

It was a devastating ordeal that saw many species come very close the extinction, and if it wasn’t for the ban on commercial whaling in 1986, we likely wouldn’t see many of the species we do today.

During this period, many whalers were arrogant about the fact that whales actually feel pain, which led them to believe what they were doing was acceptable and somehow justifiable.

Today, we’re going to take a deep dive into a question that a surprising number of people are still uncertain of, “do whales feel pain?”.

YES! Whales do feel pain. They are sentient animals that can feel pain, distress, and fear. These gigantic animals may look completely different from us, but they can suffer in many of the same ways we do.

Do Whales Actually Feel Pain?

Whales are much more intelligent than they are often given credit for. They feel pain, experience emotions, and are able to communicate with one another.

A whale may feel pain in a number of different scenarios, one of which is when they are being preyed upon by large sharks, such as the Great white shark.

As you can imagine, being bitten by such as shark with its razor-sharp teeth would undoubtedly cause pain to even the largest of whales.

Another scenario in which a whale may feel physical pain is when they find themselves entangled in fishing nets.

A whale that is entangled will quickly become distressed, and the pressure from thrashing around in the net can rub deep into the whale’s skin and cause them to bleed.

Whilst whales and other marine animals have a layer of thick blubber that insulates them from the cold, this blubber does have nerve endings so it doesn’t protect them from pain.

Do Whales Have Feelings?

These majestic giants are also known to experience emotion and feelings. There are many substantiated reports of whales grieving for their dead.

I’m sure by now you will have heard stories of distressed Orca at the likes of SeaWorld.

One of the most obvious signs of a depressed whale is the collapse of its dorsal fin. This can be observed in many Orcas across the globe that have been held in captivity.

In the wild, Orca’s are constantly on the move looking for food. Yet when in captivity they can spend sometimes hours motionless due to stress and depression.

It’s incredibly sad to see and is a prime example of the emotions that many species of whales experience.

Whales are highly social animals and often live in pods to have more opportunities to find food, protection, and to secure a mate or stay protected from predators.

There is now an overwhelming amount of evidence that supports whales having feelings such as grief, joy, happiness, shame, anger, and more.

The discovery of spindle cells in many whale species provides good supporting evidence that whales can feel complex emotions such as empathy.

Can Whales Feel When You Touch Them?

Contrary to popular belief, the skin of a whale is in fact surprisingly thin and it’s very sensitive to the touch.

Many people believe that whales’ skin is thick, and due to their size, they are unable to feel when a human touches them.

This is not the case. Despite the enormous size of many whale species, they are most certainly able to feel the touch of a human hand.

It’s still debated as to whether whales can feel when they are being tagged or not, but there’s a strong case that they can.

This largely depends on the type of whale tagging equipment being used, with some sticking deep into layers of the whale’s blubber and some simply being suction cups that stick to the animal.

Nevertheless, whales can likely feel both, and they can certainly feel the touch of a human on their skin.

In Baja, gray whales will actually swim right up to boats in order to be petted, kissed, touched, and even hugged.

It’s an incredible interaction between humans and whales that is a completely life-changing experience for those that are lucky enough to experience it.

Mother gray whales will even push their calves up to the boats in order to be stroked, so there’s no doubt that the whales enjoy this human interaction and can feel it.

How Do We Know Whales Feel Pain?

We can be confident that whales feel pain due to the change in their behavior when a painful experience is happening.

Orca are notorious for their hunting skills, often hunting in pods and using a wide variety of techniques to kill their prey.

They’re known to actively hunt and seek out whales and have even been known to take on the largest whale of them all, the blue whale.

That said, they often pick and choose their prey wisely, and will seek out baby whales that they can easily take down.

During the hunting process, Orca will continuously bite their prey and ram into it, even covering their blowhole at times to stop them from breathing.

It’s difficult to identify when a whale is experiencing pain due to their huge size and lack of facial structures.

What we do know is that when in pain, whales tend to communicate more through a series of clicks and moans.

Another sign of pain or being distressed in whales is tail-slapping, as well as blowing air under the water.

A whale that is in pain will also spend a lot more time at the surface, ensuring it can breathe when it needs to.

Final Thoughts

Whales are highly complex marine mammals that are intelligent, charismatic, and each have their own personality.

They perceive pain much the same as we humans do, having nerve endings all around their skin, particularly around their blowholes.

Whales feel pain, emotion, distress, and more. So the next time somebody tries to tell you that whales can not feel pain, you know that they are wrong.

These gentle giants can feel a range of different emotions that include grief, anger, sadness, happiness, and more.

It’s delightful to see a whale exhibit happiness when they’ve been released from a fishing net or have been trapped for some time.

They will often breach in pure joy and put on a spectacle that can be enjoyed by us humans above the surface.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post and I hope you now have a better understanding of why whales DO feel pain.

Until next time.