Whales can be found in all oceans across the globe, from the icy waters of Antarctica to the warm, tropical lagoons of Baja.
Many animals migrate with the seasons to avoid the winter months, allowing them to stay in the sun all year round. Makes sense to me!
Whilst whales do migrate, they actually migrate to the coldest ocean on earth, the Arctic ocean. During the winter months, this ocean offers rich pickings for marine food, including krill, squid, and small fish.
But how do whales tolerate the icy Arctic waters? And “do whales get cold?“.
No, whales do not get cold. Whales are warm-blooded mammals that generate their own heat and can maintain a stable body temperature despite fluctuating environmental conditions.
Do Whales Even Get Cold?
A whale’s skin is covered with temperature-sensing nerve cells just as the skin of any other mammal.
They most certainly do have the ability to sense temperature, but how that translates to what they feel such as discomfort, for example, is still very much unknown.
This likely depends on the species of whale and how much blubber they are insulated with.
Just beneath the surface of a whale’s skin is a thick layer of blubber that insulates them from the cold.
It stops whales from getting cold even in the harshest environments and means they can travel to the coldest regions on earth to feed.
Blubber covers every inch of a whale’s body aside from its fins, flippers, and fluke. It’s a crucial part of a whale’s anatomy that stores energy, insulates heat, and increases buoyancy.
How Do Whales Survive The Cold?
Whales have some amazing adaptations that help them survive in the coldest environments and ensure that they do not feel the cold.
Check them out below:
The first adaptation is a thick layer of blubber that sits underneath the skin. As mentioned, this blubber keeps whales, seals, dolphins and other marine animals insulated.
Depending on the species of whale, their blubber can be anywhere from 2-inches to over 1ft thick.
It’s also vital for ensuring the whale can survive its often long migration, as many whales don’t feed until they reach the abundant Arctic waters.
Blubber holds a lot of calories and stores energy which the whale can rely on during its long migration.
This is why baleen whales need to ensure they eat as much as they can and pack on a thick layer of blubber in the summer so that they can survive the winter months.
But blubber can come with some downside too. For example, a whale that has an incredibly thick layer of blubber may not be able to migrate to certain climates without overheating.
Whales that can stay in harsh, cold waters as they have a thick layer of blubber may not be able to travel to warmer, tropical regions.
Species that aren’t well insulated tend to live in tropical waters all year round.
Regulating Own Body Temperature
Another way whales are able to survive the cold is by regulating their own body temperatures.
Whales are endothermic, also known as “warm-blooded”, just like we humans.
This means they have the ability to regulate their own body temperature despite external environmental factors.
One of the ways whales minimize heat loss is by having a low surface area to volume ratio; a small amount of skin across which heat is exchanged with the environment, compared to a large volume of body tissue that generates heat.
Large animals tend to have a low surface area to volume ratio and given that whales for the most part are large, this helps them face the cold.
Counter Current Heat Exchange
Not all areas of a whale are covered in blubber. Their fins, flukes, and flippers don’t have any blubber at all and are known as thermal windows.
Whilst it’s not good for whales to be losing a lot of body heat due to the environment, sometimes they need to disperse heat quickly to stop them from overheating.
Whales don’t have the ability to sweat like we humans do, so this is where these thermal windows come in that are relatively thin and highly vascularized.
One fascinating adaptation that whales have is a system called counter-current heat exchange.
The arteries and veins in a whale’s thermal windows (fins, flukes, and flippers) are very close together but the blood flows in different directions which allows heat to transfer across membranes.
This means that the heat in the warm blood that leaves the whale’s heart will heat up the cold blood that is on its way back to the heat from its extremities.
Meaning that the heart is always being pumped with warm blood whilst it decreases the heat lost to the environment in those thermal windows.
Baleen whales have this counter-current heat exchange in the soft palette of their mouths.
When these whales are in the Arctic feeding grounds they spend a lot of their time with their mouths open scooping up krill.
This could potentially be a huge heat loss for these whales, but thanks to the counter-current heat exchange ability this ensures they don’t lose much heat to their environment and maintains warm blood returning to the brain and heart.
Many people often wonder how whales can survive cold conditions without freezing to death or at the very least being cold.
Now you know that whales have three adaptations that help them stay warm in even the harshest, coldest waters on earth.
Without the ability to regulate their own body temperatures and generate heat internally, they would lose so much heat to their environment and freeze to death.
There are only a select few whales such as narwhals, belugas, and bowheads that are able to tolerate Arctic waters all year round, with many whales only briefly visiting during summer to feed.
Hopefully, you now have a clear answer to your question “do whales get cold?” and have a better understanding of the adaptations they have to keep warm.
See you in the next one.
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Hi, I’m George – the founder of MarinePatch. I created this blog as marine wildlife has been my passion for many years and I’ve spent decades learning and dedicating myself to documenting all I can about the topic.