Whales, dolphins, and porpoises are fascinating to many people. It may be because of their size or because of their activities that can seem so playful or because of the attention that has been focused on human threats to these animals. The whales, dolphins, and porpoises are in an order known as cetaceans. These creatures of the sea are mammals just like humans. They breath air. They are warmblooded. They bear live young called calves which are nursed by their mothers.
There are currently seven species of cetaceans in U.S. waters that are protected under the Endangered Species Act. They are the blue whale, the bowhead whale, the fin whale, the humpback whale, the northern light whale, the sei whale and the sperm whale. All seven species are listed as endangered.
These whales became endangered because they were hunted so heavily that the populations were severely reduced. During the 19th century, whales were hunted primarily for oil and baleen. Before the advent of electricity, many American homes were lighted with whale oil. As recently as twenty years ago, products from whales were used for everything from machine oil to women's cosmetics. Because of the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, it became illegal to import products containing materials from whales.
Two species of whales may show the opposite extremes of what may happen in the future. Both the gray whale off of our west coast and the right whale off of our east coast were hunted to the verge of extinction. The grey whale may be the symbol of hope. The population has now recovered and has been removed from the list of endangered species. On the other hand, the right whale population, despite being protected from hunting for over fifty years, numbers less than 400 animals. Even in the best of circumstances, it may take a hundred years for the right whale population to recover. Humans still present a problem for the slow moving right whale, as one of the major causes of death for this species is collisions with ships.
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