For centuries, a beached whale provided coastal dwellers with a windfall of resources. People harvested the baleen, blubber, bone, meat, oil, and spermaceti. They used oil and spermaceti to fuel candles and lanterns. They consumed whale meat. And they repurposed bone and baleen (a plate in the upper jaw) to structure corsets, collars, and hoop skirts.
Around 1710, people wanted a steady supply of whale-based products. The commercial whaling industry developed in response to the increasing demand. Whaling ships pursued all types of whales for the next two centuries, including blue, sperm, and right whales.
By the time whaling was banned internationally in 1986, many species were near extinction. Scientists are now working to determine how many whales remain and if conservation efforts are working.
How Many Whales Are Left in the World?
Scientists can’t give an exact figure of how many whales are left in the world. Organizations like the International Whaling Commission (IWC) provide an estimate with a confidence interval. Problematically, many of these estimates haven’t been updated for decades.
Part of the challenge is that whale censuses are often derived from visual sightings on the surface using drones, surveys, or infrared cameras. These techniques don’t always line up with whale behavior. Whales constantly move, spending most of their time underwater, sometimes at great depths.
Another challenge is that whales of the same species often live in distinct waters of the world. In some areas, the population might be stable. But in other areas, it might be near extinction.
Regional estimates run by local governments or research groups have been more successful in determining how many whales are left in the area and whether they are at risk.
Blue whales are the largest creatures to ever live on Earth, and they can weigh up to 400,000 pounds. They were targets of the commercial fishing industry for centuries, and although they are no longer being hunted, they are being harmed by another industry — shipping.
Scientists are working on solutions. They know that ships moving at slower speeds (10 knots or less) are less likely to collide with blue whales. One possibility is to use new technology that maps common whale routes and then sets up speed limits (like in a school zone) so that ships have to slow down and watch for whales.
How Many Blue Whales Are There?
Currently, an estimated 15,000 are left in the world. About 2,000 blue whales swim near the Pacific coast, spanning from Alaskan to Central American waters. Their populations, however, are threatened by ship strikes. When blue whales come up for oxygen, they collide with massive watercraft carrying shipping containers.
Read More: Blue Whales Chase the Wind to Hunt Tiny Prey
(Credit:Craig Lambert Photography/Shutterstock)
Humpback whales are found in every major ocean basin, and they migrate from high latitudes where they like to feed to low latitudes for breeding. Their population was decimated by 95 percent due to commercial whaling.
How Many Humpback Whales Are There?
Some populations are making a comeback. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has found the Central North Pacific population, which lives in Alaskan waters, had a population of about 1,400 in 1966. It now has a head count above 21,000, which exceeded expectations.
Other populations aren’t doing as well. In 2016, the NMFS identified 14 distinct humpback whale groups around the world. Five were listed as endangered or threatened.
Sperm whales like to live in deep, ice-free waters around the world and can dive below 1,000 meters (about 3280 feet). Scientists think sperm whale populations that aren’t harmed by human interaction or climate change may have a chance to recover.
How Many Sperm Whales Are Left in the World?
Prior to commercial whaling, the sperm whale population was likely just under two million in 1710. After the IWC issued the moratorium in 1986, the population began to rebuild. In 1993, there were an estimated 736,000 sperm whales. By 2022, the population had increased to more than 844,000.
Like the sperm whale, the North Pacific right whale was also targeted by whalers during the peak commercial hunting years. Their name comes from whalers who saw them as the “right” whales to hunt because they were slow-moving, filled with oil, and conveniently bobbed on the surface after being killed.
Whalers almost eliminated the right whale population in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Even after hunting right whales became illegal, some whale ships didn’t stop. Illegal Soviet whaling ships in the 1960s continued to pursue right whales, and it’s estimated they killed as many as 770 during the decade.
How Many Right Whales Are Left?
Scientists now think that only about 31 North Pacific right whales are still swimming along. Concerningly, most of the remaining whales are thought to be male, and only 10 females are known to exist. In 2017, researchers were ecstatic when they learned of a juvenile. That meant there were still reproducing females and a chance the population could recover.
The right whale is one of the rarest of all whale species. They are baleen whales, which means they feed by opening their mouths and then straining out water while capturing tiny crustaceans and plankton.
Commercial fishing hasn’t been the only threat to whale populations from past centuries. Many modern threats include injury from ships, entanglement in nets, and consequences from climate change.
Currently, the eastern North Pacific gray whale is experiencing some sort of threat, and organizations like The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are trying to understand why.
How Many Gray Whales Are Left?
NOAA began monitoring the eastern North Pacific gray whale in 1967. They used visual surveys, infrared cameras, and drones to sight whales. In 2016, they estimated the population at 27,000, one of the highest since they began collecting data almost 50 years earlier.
Starting in January 2019, however, wildlife officials began seeing dead gray whales stranded on the West Coast. In that year’s survey, the estimate dropped to 16,650.
It has continued to decline, and the most recent estimate from 2022 to 2023 puts the population at 14,526.