10 of the World's Most Famous Whales

Whale and human swimming in the ocean as seen from below

solarseven / Shutterstock

Whales have enchanted humans ever since we first set out to sea, with early mariners often mistaking them for sea monsters. Those sailors eventually gave way to whalers, though, as growing demand for whale oil led to large-scale hunts. Some whales fought back, helping inspire the legend of Moby Dick, perhaps history's best-known whale.

As petroleum became more available in the late 1800s, whaling began a slow decline that now sees only a few countries — namely Japan, Norway and Iceland — continue the practice. Thanks to the 1986 international ban on commercial whaling, many whale populations were able to recover from decades of hunting. Today, most people enjoy whales in movies and at water parks.

Here are 10 of the most famous whales in history.

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Moby Dick

Herman Melville's house, Berkshires, MA

Pablo Sanchez/Flickr

It doesn't get more iconic than Moby Dick, the subject of Herman Melville's classic story about one man's obsessive quest to kill the great white whale.

Published in 1851, "Moby Dick" tells the tale of Captain Ahab, a whaler driven by revenge to hunt down the whale that took his leg during a previous encounter. Moby Dick was based in part on Mocha Dick, a real whale that swam the Pacific Ocean in the early 19th century, racking up wins in battles with whaling ships.

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Old Tom

A whale skeleton in a museum

 Fanny Schertzer/Wikimedia Commons

In the 1920s, off Australia's southeastern coast, there lived an orca known affectionately as "Old Tom." Old Tom and other members of his pod developed a sort of working friendship with local whalers, helping them by herding, trapping and even killing migrating baleen whales in Twofold Bay.

The whalers would then finish off the baleen whales, giving Tom and his fellow orcas their tongues and lips to eat, an arrangement that became known as "the law of the tongue." Tom also reportedly protected crew members who fell overboard, circling them to ward off the area's numerous sharks. (The skeleton of Old Tom is pictured at left.)

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Killer whale performs at SeaWorld

Benny Marty/Shutterstock.com

Shamu was one of the first few orcas ever captured alive, becoming a popular attraction at SeaWorld San Diego in the mid- to late '60s. Originally captured to be a companion for an orca already living in a Seattle aquarium, Shamu moved to San Diego after she ended up not getting along with her intended co-worker.

The original Shamu died in 1971, but her name was trademarked to preserve her well-known brand. The name "Shamu" has since been used by numerous other orcas that star in SeaWorld's acrobatic shows, including Tilikum (pictured), the notorious orca that killed trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando in February 2010.

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Exploding whale

explosion on beach


In 1970, a dead sperm whale washed ashore in Florence, Ore., offering beach-goers an oddity that quickly turned into a giant, smelly problem. Local authorities weren't sure what to do with the carcass, finally settling on a plan to use dynamite to blast it into small pieces, making it edible for birds and crabs.

Officials buried a half ton of explosives under the whale, moved everyone back a quarter mile, and pushed down the plunger. The explosion rocked the beach and sent chunks of rotting whale flying onto the crowd of spectators. There were no major injuries, although a nearby car was smashed and most of the people watching were left covered.

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Humphrey the Humpback Plaque

Photo: Orin Zebest/Flickr

Humphrey the whale is one of the most famous humpbacks in history, thanks to two journeys he took into San Francisco Bay. Humphrey first entered the bay in 1985, swimming up the Sacramento River and into Rio Vista, Calif. Rescuers led him back to sea using a "sound net," in which people aboard boats loudly banged on steel pipes, driving him in the opposite direction.

A granite memorial was erected in Rio Vista in 1986, but the Bay Area still hadn't seen the last of Humphrey. He showed up again in 1990, and was again rescued. Humphrey has since been spotted only once, near the Farallon Islands in 1991, but he may have inspired two other wayward humpbacks: The mother-daughter duo Delta and Dawn also swam up the Sacramento River in 2007.

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A white whale swims in the open ocean

Snapshot from video

In 1991, a white humpback whale was spotted off the east coast of Australia and given the name Migaloo. You can see him in action in the video below. Every year since there's been a concerted effort to spot the albino whale during this migration. Interest became so intense at one point that regulations were enacted to create an exclusion zone around the whale.

Sadly, recent photos seem to indicate that Migaloo is suffering from skin disease as a result of its lack of sun-blocking pigmentation.

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Keiko (aka 'Willy')

Keiko, the killer whale
Keiko, the star of the film Free Willy swims around his tank before release.

Unknown / DefenseImagery.mil / Wikimedia Commons

"Free Willy" was a 1993 movie about an unconventional friendship between a young boy and a captive orca that's forced to perform at a water park. In the movie, the title role was played by Keiko the orca (pictured), who really was captured from the wild as a young whale and brought to live at an aquarium in Iceland.

The movie's success created a wave of support for releasing Keiko back into the wild, and although that did eventually happen, it didn't produce a happy ending. Keiko died in 2003 at the age of 27, after coming down with pneumonia following his release.

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Delta and Dawn

Whale breaches near wind surfers

 Sarah Wiklin / NOAA Fisheries Service

Not to be outdone by the famous Humphrey, fellow humpbacks Delta and her daughter, Dawn (pictured), swam 72 miles into the Sacramento River Delta in 2007, farther inland than humpbacks are known to travel.

Rescue teams soon discovered that both whales had trauma wounds, likely caused by boat motors. The wounds soon became infected, so the team used a specially designed dart gun to administer antibiotics to both Delta and Dawn. This helped them recover enough to swim back to sea — but only after spending nearly two weeks in freshwater.

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Fail whale

twitter fail whale
Originally named "Lifting a Dreamer".

 yiyinglu / Twitter.com

It might be more accurate to say the Twitter Fail Whale is infamous rather than famous. It's the whale that shows up when things go wrong on Twitter. Back in the early days of the company, the Fail Whale showed up often enough that it became a bit of an insiders' joke.

People have gotten Fail Whale tattoos, while others have turned it into classically inspired works of art. There's even a Fail Whale Fan Club on Twitter.