Is Disney lying to you? The story of whales’ blowholes

Have you ever watched Finding Nemo? Do you remember how Dory and Marlin escaped the whale that swallowed them on their way to Sidney? In the movie, the two friends found themselves in a dire situation. At least until the whale took a deep breath at the surface and pushed Dory and Marlin out through its nostrils (called blowholes). What a relief for our two favorite fish, being able to go back to the water and search for baby Nemo.

However, if the story had happened for real, Dory and Marlin would have never survived. The whale would have swallowed them, and not because whales are mean, but because it is impossible to escape a whale’s mouth. Why? Simple: whales’ blowholes are not connected to their mouths. Disney and Pixar have been lying to you. Let’s debunk some myths about the anatomy of a whale.

Whales cannot breathe through their mouths

A whale cannot breathe through its mouth as we do. It breathes so by using its blowhole like a nose. It is located on top of its head. Depending on the species, whales can have one or two blowholes (nostrils). The blowholes then connect to air sacs surrounded by muscles that, when contracted, can produce whale songs. Once the air goes through the air sacs, it enters the lungs, allowing the whale to breathe. A whale’s mouth on the other side connects to the esophagus and the rest of the digestive tract.

Whales cannot drown

Did you know that whales cannot open their blowholes underwater? Unlike humans, who have an automatic respiratory system, whales have to remember to breathe. When underwater, they have some sort of muscle reflex that seals shut their blowhole so they can dive. It also allows them to dive deep underwater, from several minutes to several hours for the record-breaking beaked whales. Additionally, this reflex allows them to sleep safely.

When a whale breathes, it produces a blow

When a whale exhales, it expels a cloud of air, and water called a blow. The water sprayed in the blow comes from the surface of the blowhole, not from the lungs. A whale blow can be seen from hundreds of meters and whale watchers can recognize different species of whales just by looking at the shape and direction of their blows. For example, a sperm whale’s blow is angled and points toward the left of the whale’s head. Why? Because sperm whales have an asymmetrical skull and only one blowhole pointing towards the left of its head. A fin whale has two blowholes and produces a beautiful tall, vertical blow.

We can collect whale blows for research

Whale scientists can actually collect and analyze blows for research. A whale’s blow, just like your nose, contains … snot. And researchers invented a drone with a collector that retrieves whales blows: they call it the Snotbot. Whales secretions contain DNA, hormones, and microorganisms that are essential biological information when studying the health of a population. By collecting blows from around the world, scientists can understand how different populations are doing and how to do a better conservation job.

Although the story of Dory and Marlin was inaccurate, it is always good to learn something new about whales! And next time you go whale watching maybe you will think twice when a whale “blows” on you … True story!

whales' blowholes

Anaïs is the founder of Whale Scientists. She is a PhD student at McGill University working on killer whale ecology and pollution. You can read more about her here.

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