ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

How a Whale Senses the World

Updated on August 10, 2011

Whales and dolphins (known in the scientific world as Cetaceans), have undergone incredible changes to their sensory systems in order to adapt to life in the sea. Ancestors of these remarkable creatures were actually land animals that looked something like this animal to the right. Over many millions of years they began to lose certain abilities that were necessary for land dwelling and replaced them with very unique abilities suited for an aquatic life.

One of the first ancestors of whales and dolphins
One of the first ancestors of whales and dolphins
The eye of a whale
The eye of a whale
The eye of a humpback whale
The eye of a humpback whale
A beluga whale blowing bubble rings
A beluga whale blowing bubble rings
A humpback whale coming up to breathe
A humpback whale coming up to breathe
A bottlenose dolphin
A bottlenose dolphin
Two killer whales
Two killer whales
A killer whale
A killer whale
A dolphin and calf
A dolphin and calf
Spotted dolphins
Spotted dolphins
An amazon river dolphin
An amazon river dolphin
Northern Right Whale
Northern Right Whale


Being able to see underwater requires a special lens shape. Light travels more slowly in water than it does in the air. It also refracts or bends when it passes into the water. So ancient cetaceans originally possessed eyes suited for living on land and were at a disadvantage when trying to hunt fish. As a result they were able to develop an eye that is suited to both air and sea. They did this by evolving to have strong muscles around the eye that can actually change the shape of the lens depending on whether it is exposed to air or water.

There is another problem that was faced by the eyes of ancient cetaceans. The intensity of light at the surface is much higher than it is at lower depths or in murky water. A whale needs to be able to see in both situations. Sperm whales, for example, spend much of their time at great depths where there little or no light can reach. As a result, cetaceans have evolved to have a very large pupil that can open wide to allow a large amount of light in at great depths. They also have what is known as a tapetum lucidum, which is a light reflecting layer that sends light back through the retina a second time, creating a higher quality image. When they rise to the surface, they simply close their pupil to a tiny slit, only allowing a small amount of the light in.

Whales and dolphins usually turn on their sides to focus one eye on a target, however they are capable of binocular vision for a small distance. While underwater, they can usually see about 35 feet in front of them. Above the surface however, they become more nearsighted as a result of the change in pressure and air density.


Whales and dolphins have all but lost their sense of smell. This could be a result of evolution. It is reasonable to assume that as the repositioning of the nostrils to the top of the head was occurring, many changes to the function of the organs associated with the nostrils must have also occurred. Baleen whales have a limited sense of smell, perhaps to help them locate krill or plankton which have distinct smells that can be picked up in the air as the whale takes a breath. Toothed whales appear to have completely lost their olfactory system.


Cetaceans do seem to have the ability to taste. Dolphins have shown the ability to detect sweet, sour, bitter and salty flavors. It is also quite common for whales and dolphins to refuse dead fish, or prefer one type of fish over another. Some even have a small Jacobson's organ which you may know is also found in cats and snakes among others.


Sound travels five times as fast underwater as it does in the air. The difference in density between the air and the sea makes it difficult for sound to pass between them. As a result, a normal air-filled mammal ear is useless. Baleen whales and toothed whales have evolved different ways of dealing with this problem and it is not completely understood in both types. Baleen whales have a waxy plug in their ear canal which is thought to transmit sounds to the inner ear. This means they are most likely deaf above the water. Toothed whales do not have this ear plug. There are several theories for how these whales hear but in my opinion the most logical theory is that the ear canal is closed off in most toothed whales and has become redundant. Instead, toothed whales may be able to receive sounds through their lower jaw which contains oil-filled sinuses that may be able to transmit sounds directly to the inner ear. Or perhaps they can hear some sounds through a water filled ear canal and use their lower jaw only for picking up echolocation clicks.


Although I plan to dedicate a separate hub to this fascinating ability, I thought it would be appropriate to summarize what this sense is and what it does for those who have never heard of it.

Echolocation involves emitting sounds in the form of short clicks and picking up information about the world surrounding the dolphin by analysis of the returning echoes. This ability is only found in toothed whales, dolphins, as well as bats and possibly some bird species. They combine low and high frequency sound emissions along with exceptional directional hearing which has given them an edge over other sea animals.


Cetaceans may not have hands but their sense of touch is still very important to them. Their skin is soft and easily damaged but it also heals quite quickly. It is highly specialized and contains a complex system of nerve endings which are more abundant in certain areas. It is believed that cetaceans can use their sense of touch to achieve “laminar flow” of water over their bodies to swim efficiently at high speeds. If turbulence develops somewhere on the surface of the skin, the pressure should help the dolphin adjust its body to keep the correct shape for laminar flow to occur. These creatures also need their sense of touch to know when their blowhole is above the surface of the water, allowing them to take a breath. They have many more nerve endings around the blowhole to help with this. In addition they possess sensitive nerve endings on the tips of their mouths to help investigate objects, much like our fingertips.

The Magnetic Sense

Of all the senses described here, this is the least understood. Small crystals of magnetite have been found in many species including bacteria, bees, butterflies, fish, birds, bats and reptiles. They have also been found in and around the brains of Cetaceans. Magnetite crystals are thought to continuously orient themselves to the earth's magnetic field, like miniature magnets. Perhaps these animals are able to sense the orientation of these crystals and work out the direction in which it is traveling. Normally the magnetic fields run north to south at an even density. Occasionally however, it will be distorted by certain geographical formations that are rich in metals like iron. These formations are called geomagnetic anomalies. It is possible that this is one of the causes of strandings by whales and dolphins.

In conclusion, cetaceans have adapted to live in a completely alien world compared to ours. Although we are both air breathing mammals, whales and dolphins have been evolving for so long (around 54 million years) that they have become extraordinarily unique animals.

If you enjoyed this hub, you might also be interested in:

The Awesome Intelligence of Cetaceans Part 1

What You Should Know About Declawing

The Funny, Sweet and Crazy Habits of a Cat


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Very informative and interestingly written.

    • Kate H profile imageAUTHOR

      Nova Scott 

      9 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks for the feedback! I'm glad you both learned something and enjoyed it. I have so much more to share on this topic I hope you will continue to check back! Thanks again.

    • Meisjunk profile image

      Jennifer Kessner 

      9 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Thanks for all the info! =) I absolutely love learning about ocean dwellers. Great hub; voted up and interesting.

    • MattyLeeP profile image


      9 years ago from Tucson, AZ

      Wow, I didn't know half of that! Pretty interesting, right on.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)