How old do whales and sharks live?

Last Saturday was the worst day I have “worked” the layout. Worked means answered visitor questions and talked to them about our layout (the Mendocino Coast Model Railroad and Navigation Co.) here in Fort Bragg. The wind was howling. The sheeting rain was horizontal and it was COLD. The layout was packed because it was a holiday weekend and, given the inclement weather, there aren’t too many places you can go for entertainment.

So, there I was freezing my butt at the south end of the layout where the wind was crashing the door closed talking to a couple who wanted to know more about the Point Cabrillo lighthouse. The conversation was sparked by our diorama of Point Cabrillo. I explained that the Point Cabrillo lighthouse was a grand place to visit especially when the whales are passing up and down the coast but perhaps not a good place to visit on a day like to day. Just as they were about to leave their young (10?) son started asking questions about whales and sharks. I did my best to answer but was stumped on the question of how long sharks and whales lived. I asked my fellow docent and he was as clueless as me.

Without too much difficulty my web search armed me with enough info for me to answer the question again – that is if i am ever asked!

The humpback whale is not only one of the best-known whale species in the world, but considered among the most popular. You can find them in every ocean, so anywhere you are, as long as you’re in their breeding or feeding grounds, you might just catch a glimpse of one.

humpback whale old animals mammal
Humpback whale
Known for their lovely singing, humpback whales are not skittish. They’re considered to be quite friendly, and are often curious about that boat passing near them. And while the average humpback whale lives to about 50, there are reports of them reaching the ripe old age of 95.
OK – now for the age of sharks ……..
A shark believed to be the oldest living vertebrate has been discovered — and it could be older than Shakespeare. The massive Greenland shark was found in the North Atlantic ocean by scientists who estimated it is up to 512 years old.
 A Greenland shark is caught by fishermen. One of a group of 28 analysed by scientists is believed to be up to 512 years old (file picture)

A Greenland shark  caught by fishermen.

They used its size to suggest its year of birth is as early as 1505 – when future King Henry VIII ended his engagement to Catherine of Aragon.

Greenland sharks, which only grow 1 cm a year, have been known to live for hundreds of years  Experts used its length – a staggering 18 foott – and radiocarbon dating to determine its age as between 272 and 512 years old, according to a study in journal, Science.  It was the oldest of a group of 28 Greenland sharks analysed for the study.

 Greenland sharks are known for their longevity, living for hundreds of years (file picture)

Greenland sharks are known for their longevity, living for hundreds of years

How do you weigh a whale?

If you follow this blog at all you’ll realize that quite a few blogs are the result of my trying to answer questions from visitors to our layout.

In the middle of the summer whilst “on duty” I had a very serious conversation with a young boy who was bitterly disappointed that he was not going to go out to sea to pet a whale. It took quite a long time to explain to him that whales went up and down the coast on the whales schedule and not his. Near the end of our conversation (Mom was doing her best not to laugh) he came out with a zinger, “You said that whales weigh more than elephants.” I agreed that I said that. “Well, how do you know? Who weighs whales.” Mom saved me and I went for a cup of coffee.

Well an article has recently come to my attention which does answer his question. The article appeared on the BBC website and was written by a lady named Helen Briggs:

Until now it has only been possible to weigh whales once they have washed up dead on beaches. Now scientists have solved the conundrum, with the help of aerial photographs taken by drones.

Their model accurately calculated the body volume and mass of wild southern right whales. Already being used to assess the survival of calves, it has many potential uses in conservation. Body mass is a key factor in the success of whales as a group, determining their energy uses, food requirements and growth rates. Yet most of what we know about the body size of whales comes from old whaling literature or from animals that end up stranded on the beach or caught in fishing gear.

“It is very difficult to measure a whale on a scale – I mean you have to kill it to do it and that’s exactly what we’re avoiding here,” said study researcher Fredrik Christiansen from the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies in Denmark.

Mother and calf Right Whale

Mother and calf Right Whale

The researchers studied southern Right whales, which gather in large numbers at their winter breeding grounds off the coast of Argentina. They flew a drone over whales swimming in clear water, capturing photographs when the adults and calves came up to the surface to breathe, including their backs and sides when they rolled over. They found they could get a good representation of the body shape of the whales, which they linked back to old whaling literature recording body length, girth and mass. They were then able to convert body shapes, or volumes, to mass.

3D model of a Right Whale

3D model of a Right Whale

“The ability to predict body mass from free-living whales opens up the opportunity for us to look at animals over time and look at how they change, how they grow,” said Prof Christiansen. 

Drone studies could help in conservation by monitoring the health of different whale populations in the oceans. The approach could also be used to estimate the size of other marine mammals by adjusting the model parameters.

Whales are the largest animals on this planet, ranging from the 4 ton pygmy Right whale to the 200 ton Blue whale.

Wherever you are young man I hope this helps.