Smell and taste

Odours travel slowly in water and cetaceans move too quickly to use this sense efficiently. For this reason, they lack the sense of smell… with one exception: in 2011, researchers revealed that bowhead whales had the ability to smell. They believe that bowheads use their olfactory sense to “sniff” the air in search of krill. Whales can also taste what they eat. They even use taste to distinguish water masses based on their salt content.


Physical contacts play an important role in the social relations that whales maintain with one another, including between mothers and their young. Additionally, the sense of touch is particularly developed in the head, near the blowholes, undoubtedly so that cetaceans can detect when they break the water surface and when they can open their blowholes to breath. Baleen whales and freshwater dolphins also have “whiskers” or vibrissae at the end of the rostrum (snout) which allows them to detect, for example, the density of a cloud of plankton or the presence of prey in the muddy bottom.

The sixth sense

Several studies suggest that cetaceans can detect variations in the Earth’s magnetic fields. This sense is thought to help them during their migrations.