14 Jaw-Dropping Pictures of Whales

From a killer whale on the hunt to narwhals touching tusks, we look at some of the most stunning photographs of marine giants.

In the oceans' inky depths lurk some of the largest animals on Earth. More than 40 species of whale spend their lives beneath the waves, surfacing only to breathe.

These marine behemoths are famous for epic migrations between warm waters (for breeding) and colder, nutrient-rich waters (for feeding).

The grey whale, for instance, swims more than 10,000 miles each year between Mexico’s Baja peninsula and Alaska's Aleutian Islands—one of the longest known migratory routes of any mammal. (Related: "The Rare Beauty of Dozens of Migrating Humpback Whales.")

Yet centuries of intensive hunting have driven some whale species close to extinction, including the North Atlantic right whale. Once abundant in the waters between North America and Europe, fewer than 500 of this endangered species remain.

Conservation efforts have allowed other species to rebound—recent swarms of humpback whales may be a sign of such successes—but the animals are still at risk due to shipping activities, overfishing, and climate change.

Here are 14 stunning photographs of whales trying to survive in an often inhospitable world.

HUMPBACK WHALE Humpback whales were hunted to near extinction, with numbers dropping by more than 90 percent before a 1966 ban allowed the species to bounce back.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MAURICIO HANDLER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

NARWHAL A group of narwhal gather en masse at an Arctic ice floe to eat cod. The animal's tusk is actually a tooth that can grow more than nine feet long; it has baffled people for centuries.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL NICKLEN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

BELUGA Also known as white whales, belugas (pictured, an animal at St. Lawrence Marine Park in Quebec) live in the Arctic. Calves are born grey or even brown and only fade to white as they become sexually mature around five years of age.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN SKERRY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

PILOT WHALE Pilot whales swim off Kona, Hawaii. Oceanic whitetip sharks sometimes follow pods of these whales, possibly eating scraps of prey left behind.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN SKERRY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

ORCA An orca, also known as a killer whale, herds herring into a tight group near Andenes, Norway. Largest of the dolphins, this predator also feasts on marine mammals such as seals, sea lions, and even whales.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL NICKLEN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

BELUGA CLOSEUP Belugas communicate with echolocation, a built-in sonar that allows them to sense objects nearby. They do this via their melon, a fatty organ in the centre of their forehead that gives the skull its distinctive shape.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID DOUBILET, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

TOUCHING TUSKS The narwhal’s iconic tusk is actually a repurposed canine tooth. This complex sensory organ transmits stimuli from ocean water to the brain.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL NICKLEN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

ORCA ON THE MOVE Intensely social creatures, orcas hunt in pods, family groups of up to 40 individuals. The species can be found from the polar regions to the Equator.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL NICKLEN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

MINKE WHALE Minke feed near the surface of Cashes Ledge, a rich region of marine biodiversity within the Gulf of Maine. This species is still hunted: In 2016, Japanese whalers killed 333 minke whales—including more than 200 pregnant females.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN SKERRY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

BOWHEAD WHALE The bowhead, which lives in chilly northern waters, can live up to 200 years. A cold environment causes a low body temperature, which in turn means slow metabolism—and thus less damage to tissues.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL NICKLEN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

LONG-FINNED PILOT WHALE Like the orca, the long-finned pilot whale is a large dolphin that forms family pods. The highly social species earned its moniker from their tendency to follow a leader, or "pilot," during lengthy migrations.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN SKERRY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

SPERM WHALE Sperm whales (pictured off the Azores) were intensely hunted for a fatty substance in their heads, called spermaceti in their heads, used as an oil and lubricant in the 1800s.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN SKERRY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

SINGERS OF THE SEA Humpback whales (pictured, an animal near Antarctica) emit moans, howls, cries, and other complex noises that can continue for hours. The 1979 "Songs of the Humpback Whale" album made the animals' "songs" famous.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL MELFORD, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Header Image: SOUTHERN RIGHT WHALE A southern right whale encounters a diver on the sandy sea bottom off the Auckland Islands, New Zealand. Adults can reach lengths of 17 metres and weigh up to 60 tonnes. PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN SKERRY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

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