Whales have been depicted in various cultures worldwide, notably by the Inuit and the coastal peoples of Vietnam and Ghana, who sometimes hold whale funerals.
Whales occasionally feature in literature and film, as in the great white whale of Herman Melville's Moby Dick.
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Small whales, such as belugas, are sometimes kept in captivity and trained to perform tricks, but breeding success has been poor and the animals often die within a few months of capture.
Whale watching has become a form of tourism around the world.
Once relentlessly hunted for their products, whales are now protected by international law.
The North Atlantic right whales nearly became extinct in the twentieth century, with a population low of 450, and the North Pacific grey whale population is ranked Critically Endangered by the IUCN.
Besides whaling, they also face threats from bycatch and marine pollution.
The meat, blubber and baleen of whales have traditionally been used by indigenous peoples of the Arctic.
So extreme is their adaptation to life underwater that they are unable to survive on land.
Whales range in size from the 2.6 metres (8.5 ft) and 135 kilograms (298 lb) dwarf sperm whale to the 29.9 metres (98 ft) and 190 metric tons (210 short tons) blue whale, which is the largest creature that has ever lived.
The sperm whale is the largest toothed predator on earth.
Several species exhibit sexual dimorphism, in that the females are larger than males.
The whales comprise eight extant families: Balaenopteridae (the rorquals), Balaenidae (right whales), Cetotheriidae (the pygmy right whale), Eschrichtiidae (the grey whale), Monodontidae (belugas and narwhals), Physeteridae (the sperm whale), Kogiidae (the dwarf and pygmy sperm whale), and Ziphiidae (the beaked whales).