A-z - Animals

Whale Lifespan: How Long Do Whales Live?

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Whales can be difficult to study because many species live hundreds of feet below the ocean's surface. Sperm whales spend most of their time diving deep in search of food. They can reach depths of 3,000 feet or more, or just over half a mile. So how do we know how long a whale lives? Is it possible that there are whales over a hundred years old deep underwater? One thing we do know is that whales are mammals and thus breathe air to survive. So even with deep-diving whales, they have to surface at some point so their blowholes can get access to air to replenish their lungs. Because they must constantly return to the surface, researchers are able to use satellite imagery to study and track the whales. So how long have scientists discovered that whales live?

How long do whales live?

Humpback whale with fog blowhole
The jet of water ejected from the whale's blowholes does not come from the lungs.

© iStock.com/stephenallen75

Whales typically live between 20 and 100 years, but vary by species. One species of whale can even live to be over 200 years old! Let's dig into some cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises) and see how long the different species live.

bottlenose dolphin lifepsan

With proper care, bottlenose dolphins can live to be over 40 years old. The oldest bottlenose dolphin on record is 61 years old and lives at a marine center in Florida. In the wild, the lifespan is much lower, with an estimated upper limit of just 17 years for dolphins. Bottlenose dolphins have shorter lifespans in the wild as they face predators and other threats.

Animals that live in coral reefs: dolphins
Bottlenose dolphins on the reef. These caring creatures are often seen tending to the sick, elderly, and injured in their groups, known as "pods."

©Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock.com

How long do blue whales live?

Believe it or not, but the best way to measure the age of blue whales is their earwax! As blue whales age, their layers of earwax alternate, indicating when the whales are migrating or feeding. Just as you can count the rings on a tree to know its age, you can similarly count the time in the earwax of a blue whale between migration and fasting to reliably estimate their age! Using this method, scientists estimate that pygmy blue whales can live to be over 70 years old, while larger Antarctic blue whales can live to around 90 years old.

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Are Blue Whales Endangered - A Blue Whale Close To The Water
blue whale near ocean surface

© Andrew Sutton/Shutterstock.com

How long do killer whales live?

Orcas are between the size of a blue whale and a bottlenose dolphin, so you might be wondering how long they live. Sadly, killer whales struggle to survive long-term in captivity, and their lifespan is often only 30 years or less. In the wild, killer whales can live to be over 40 years old.

The oldest orca in the wild, known as "Granny," lives near Washington state and British Columbia. "Grandma's" age is debated, but some reports say she lived from 1911 to 2016, which would make her 105 years old. Grandma was arrested in 1967 with the intention of moving her to Ocean Park, but she was believed to be of advanced age at the time, 49 years after her eventual death! Like Granny's age is close to 60 to 80 years old, which still shows the longest lifespan of a killer whale in the wild!

Fastest Sea Animals: Killer Whales
Orcas are the largest of the dolphins and are very intelligent animals.

©Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock.com

Do the biggest whales live the longest?

The three largest whale species, blue, fin and sei, do have some of the longest life expectancies, but not the longest. Blue whales can grow to be 80-100 feet long (that's the length of three parked school buses in a row!). They are found worldwide in the North Pacific, Indian and Antarctic oceans, and the southern Atlantic Ocean. These large animals are considered endangered by the IUCN due to overwhaling, but the good news is that their numbers are increasing, helping more blue whales reach their life expectancy. As mentioned above, blue whales typically live to be 70 to 90 years old.

Also a member of the Rorqual family of whales, fin whales can grow up to 75-85 feet and have a lifespan similar to that of blue whales, with an average lifespan of 80-90 years. The sei whale is the third largest whale, with a body length of 40-60 feet and a life span of 50-70 years. Fin whales are listed by the IUCN as Vulnerable and Sei Whales are listed as Endangered, but both are increasing in numbers, as are blue whales.

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Which whale lives the longest?

Whale Lifespan - Bowhead Whale
A pair of bowhead whales off the coast of Russia. This species can live for over 200 years!

©Vladimir Chebanov/Shutterstock.com

If the largest whale lives long but not the longest, which whale lives the longest? Bowhead whale! These whales have been recorded to live for more than 200 years. The average lifespan of a bowhead whale is 100-200 years. The researchers found it interesting to study these giant creatures, figuring out why they are the longest-lived mammals on Earth. Some are trying to discover what can be applied to humans to extend the lifespan of our species.

How do these giant whales delay aging and avoid various age-related diseases? A study examined the gene sequence of bowhead whales for "the presence of natural mechanisms that could suppress cancer more effectively in these animals." They're looking for clues about how these whales age more slowly and appear to be cancer-resistant.

One theory about their longevity revolves around the idea that they have adapted to life in extremely cold waters as they mainly live in arctic and sub-arctic seas. Similar to animals that hibernate for the winter, they lower their metabolism and possibly increase their lifespan. That's another reason researchers are fascinated by bowhead whales.

How long do toothed whales live?

Animals that use sonar - beluga whales
A mother whale swims with a beluga calf. Toothed whales use echolocation to navigate murky waters with low visibility.

©CampCrazy Photography/Shutterstock.com

Whales are divided into two groups, baleen whales (as mentioned above: blue whales, fin whales, sei whales, and bowhead whales) and toothed whales (such as sperm whales, beaked whales, and dolphins, porpoises, and beluga whales). The largest toothed whale is the sperm whale. They can grow up to 40-50 feet long. Unlike baleen whales, which sift through the ocean for small fish, crustaceans, krill, and plankton, toothed whales hunt their prey and attack squid, rays, and even sharks! Sperm whales have a long lifespan, ranging from 60 to 80 years. The pygmy sperm whale and the pygmy sperm whale are two other species of toothed whales, but they are significantly smaller than the sperm whale and are also quite rare. These whales were only 11.5 feet long, and since we've seen a correlation between larger animals living longer, one might suspect that these smaller whales lived shorter lives. That's right. Pygmy sperm whales can live up to 23 years, less than half that.

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The beaked whale, another toothed whale, is also much smaller, but larger than the pygmy sperm whale. There are different types of beaked whales, but one of the most common is the Cuvier's beaked whale, which can grow to be 15-23 feet long. Their average lifespan is 50-60 years. While sperm whales are known to be deep divers, the Cuvier's beaked whale holds the record for the deepest dive. The researchers tagged several beaked whales and recorded their diving depths via satellite. The deepest dive is with the Cuvier's beaked whale at 2,999 meters (1.86 miles!). Now that's a deep dive!

What is the lifespan of dolphins and porpoises?

The largest dolphin - white-beaked dolphin
Pair of white-beaked dolphins

©Agami Photo Agency/Shutterstock.com website

Dolphins and porpoises are whales and there are several families. Dolphins are in a family of their own and are distinguished from porpoises by their smaller size, shorter beak and rounded snout. Dolphins grow to be 5-7 feet long and have an average lifespan of 23 years. There are several family groups of dolphins, including porpoises and pufferfish. The most common bottlenose dolphin has an average lifespan of 20-40 years, while the smaller Amazon river dolphin (or pink dolphin) lives 12-18 years.


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whale animal
Humpback whale calf in the ocean. Whales use their songs to communicate across the open ocean.

© Tomas Kotouc/Shutterstock.com

about the author

I'm a wildlife conservation writer and reporter who raises awareness about conservation by teaching others about the amazing animals we share our planet. I graduated from the University of Minnesota Morris with a degree in Elementary Education, and I am a former teacher. When I'm not writing, I enjoy going to the kids' soccer games, watching movies, working on DIY projects, and running with Tango, our giant Labrador.

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