Blue whale

The blue whale, which is actually a mottled blue gray, is the largest animal on the Earth. Its heart is the size of a small car and average adult person could fit inside its largest blood vessels. In the heyday of whaling, in the first half of the 20th century, whales caught some specimens that were 108 ft (33 m) long and weighed about 220 tons. Today, following intensive hunting until the1960s, blue whales tend to be slightly smaller and the world population has shrunk to less than 5% of its original number.

The 10,000 or so blue whales that remain are scattered widely and patchily across the world's oceans. In summer, most blue whales feed in polar and cool temperate regions, where nutrient-rich water support a vast population of phytoplankton (microscopic algae) on which krill, the whales prey , feed. In winter, the whales migrate to tropical and subtropical waters to breed, usually locations, such as off the coast of California and western Mexico, blue whales may be resident all year round.

Fin whale

The fin whale is seconds in size only to the blue whale. It is sometimes called the finback, or razorback, because of the ridge that runs along the upper side of the tail stock. The species is unusual in having different pigmentation on the right and left sides of the head. The right side is paler, both inside and outside the mouth. This feature is probably linked to feeding. The fin whale is sometimes visible lunging across the water surface, turning its head to one side as it does so. The flash of white may serve to scare a school of fish into a tight ball, making it easier for the whale to consume them.

In the 19th and 20th centuries whales heavily hunted this sleek, fast – swimming whale although its numbers still remain much greater than those of the blue whale. Fin whales are quit social and it is common to find them in pods of three to seven individuals. Most fin whales migrate to polar and temperate waters to summer feed, taking advantages of abundant krill and small schooling fish. In winter, many migrate to topical or subtropical waters to mate and calve. Others prefer to say in cooler waters throughout the year.

Humpback Whale

The humpback whale is the third – largest rorqual species by weight but the fourth longest, being slightly shorter on average than the sei whale. The humpback is the most distinctive rorqual of all, with its stocky body, knobbly head, and above all, it's enormous, round – ended, pale – marked flippers. When the whale dives, it raises its flukes high in the air, and the pale marking on the underside are obvious. The shape of the flukes and the color and pattern of the underside are as distinctive as fingerprints, and scientist and whale watchers alike photograph them to identify individual whales. Several thousand whales are now on record.

The humpback is distinct from other rorquals to the extent that it is placed in a separate genus. Its scientific name, Megaptera novaeangliae, means "big – winged New Englander," in reference its flippers and the place where it was first described scientifically. The humpback is arguably the most exciting whale to watch. It is slow – moving and often cavorts around at the sea surface, breaching or lob tailing. Sometimes it will lie on its back and wave one or both flippers in the air. Occasionally it brings a flipper down with a crash.

Sei Whale

The sei (pronounced "say") whale is the third – longest rorqual whale but the fourth largest by weight. It is much more streamlined than the humpback whale. The sei's name comes from the Norwegian seje, meaning pollack (coalfish), a member of the cod family. In Norwegian waters Sei whales often feed on Pollack, hence the fish and the whale have become associated.

This medium – sized whale is easily confused with the fin whale and especially Bryde's whale. It can be distinguished from bryde's by its dorsal fin, set father forward on the body, and its dives sequence, which does not involve arching the tail stock. Seen at close range, a Bryde's whale has three ridges running alone its head, while a sei has only one. Although the distributions of the sei and Bryde's whales overlap in warmer waters, the sei travels into cooler water as far as latitude 60N and 60S. Bryde's whales stay in warmer waters and rarely venture much beyond 40N or 40S. Sei whales migrate between cool – water summer feeding grounds and warm water winter breading grounds. They tend to stay in deeper water and are rarely seen near coasts.

Bryde's Whale

Bryde's (pronounced "brood - ess") whale is strikingly similar to the sei whale, although slightly smaller, and it has three ridges on the top of the head instead of one. It was not until the early 1900s that whalers realized the two were distinct species. Bryde's whale gains its name from the Norwegian consul Johan Bryde, Who helped set up a whaling station in Durban, South Africa, where the species was first described. Bryde's whale, unlike other rorqual whales, is conspicuously a warm – water species. It prefer water temperatures above 68F (20C), so it is most common between latitudes 30N and 30S.

Bryde's whale, because its comparatively small size and lack of blubber, was not heavily exploited by whalers until the 1970's, so the population has been much less severely depleted than that of other rorqual whales, except the minke. Scientist generally agree that Bryde's whale is at least two species: a larger, common form, Balaenoptera brydei, and a pygmy form called Eden's whale, Balaenoptera edeni. A third species, Omura's whale, Balaenoptera omurai, and possibly a fourth, may soon be recognized. The information given here relates to the common larger species.

Minke Whale

The minke (Pronounced "mink - ey") whale – a lively, boldly marked whale – is the second smallest of all baleen whale species. Only the pigmy right whale with which it can be confused, is smaller. Scientist have recently confirmed that the minke whale is at least two species: the northern minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) of the northern Hemisphere and the southern minke whale (Balaenoptera bonaeresis) of the southern. Their distribution overlap near the equator. There is also a dwarf from found in the southern Hemisphere (not described here).

Taken together, the distribution of the minke species is virtually ocean wide, from polar to tropical waters, with cooler waters preferred. Southern minke whale eat mainly krill, while northern minkes take schooling fish or copepods. Minke whales, because of their small size, have largely escaped heavy exploitation. Among baleen whales in general, and rorqual whale in particular, the northern minke is distinctive having a white band of each flipper. Most southern minke whales lach this band. The dive sequence of both species is, however, distinctive, with the snout emerging first and the tail stock arching strongly before a dive.

Bowhead Whale

Bowhead whales belong to the same taxonomic family. As the larger right whales (Balaenidae). Bowheads are whales of arctic and subarctic waters. They penetrate farther north than any other whale, and with their muscular blubber – rich bodies they can break through pack ice to breath. The bowhead whale is readily recognizable by its white chin and its massive head, which extend to nearly one – third the length of the body. The houses enormous baleen plates that can reached more than 13 ft (4 m) long - the largest of any whale. The bowhead skim feeds for krill, copepods, and other zooplankton at various levels in the water column. Because of their slow swimming speed and bulky blubber - rich body, bowheads were, along with other large right whales, favored species for hunting. By 1900 the bowhead was nearly extinct but has since made a reasonable comeback. The bowhead is named after its skull. With the fish removed, the skull is narrow and strongly arched, looking like a bow.

Southern & Northern Right Whale

The Southern and Northern right whales are similar in appearance and among the easiest of all whales to identify. They swim slowly, often close to the surface, and pale growth of rough skin their heads, infested with whale lice and barnacles, are highly distinctive. Like gray whales and humpbacks, right whales migrate along predictable sea highways. Unfortunately, such features have made these whales among the easiest to hunt. They have been heavily exploited since medieval times and, although protected internationally since the 1930s, both species remain vulnerable to extinction. The Northern right numbers only a few hundred and, in the face of collisions with ships, entanglement in nets, and habitat deterioration, its survival hangs by a thread. Recently, Scientist found the northern right whale to be two species: the north Atlantic form, Eubalaena glacialis, and the north pacific form, Eubalaena japonica. Surprisingly, the North Pacific Right whale is more closely related to the Southern right whale, Eubalaena australis, than to its north Atlantic relative.

Gray Whale

One of the most distinctive whales, this blunt – headed, scarred, and barnacled baleen whale is a whale watcher's favorite. Its head shape and body bulk are in between that of a large right whale and a rorqual. Like the larger right whales, this slow swimming, coast – hugging cetacean was heavily hunted for hundreds of years. Since the species was protected in 1946, the eastern Pacific population has made a strong comeback. The western pacific population remains sparse, with only a few hundred individuals.

The eastern Pacific gray is well – known for its long distance migrations between summer feeding grounds in the Bering, Beaufort, and Chukchi seas of subarctic and arctic waters and winter calving grounds of Baja California, Mexico. For many individuals, the annual round trip is about 11,000 miles (18,000 km). Among baleen whales, the gray whale is uniquely a bottom feeder. In its northern feeding grounds, it will bury its snout in the sediment, engulfing a mouthful of mud and water, which it strains through the baleen. Most individual rolls onto their right to feed, and the head is more scarred and the baleen more warn on that side.

Sperm Whale

The deep – diving ability of sperm whales and the aggressiveness of threatened adult males are legendary. In the early days of whaling, harpooned males rammed and sunk whaling vessels much larger than themselves. Moby Dick, the legendary white whale of Herman Melville's novel, was a sperm whale.

Sperm whales have a highly developed echolocation System to locate their fast – swimming prey in deep water. Their repertoire of sounds includes groans, whistles, and squeaks that are communication with other sperm whales. Some scientists speculate that sperm whales can focus sound beams through the spermaceti organ with sufficient intensity to stun prey.Sperm whales have a social structure different from that of all other large whales. First, male sperm whales are much larger than females. Second females and young whales of both sexes tend to stay in temperate or warmer waters all year round, while many adult males remain in cooler waters. The biggest males, traveling singly or in small groups, migrate to warmer wares to compete with each other of females. The heads of males often bear scars from teeth rakes gained during fight with other males.

Pygmy & Dwarf Sperm Whales

The pygmy (see illustration below) and dwarf (see p. 60) sperm whales are little – known. It is quite tricky to tell the two species apart and much of the information about them has come from stranded specimens.

Both species have a wide distribution in warmer oceanic waters, with the dwarf sperm preferring the edge of the continental shelf and the pygmy sperm deeper water. At Sea, both species confused for a bottlenose dolphin but for the blunt head without a beak and the presence of a false gill behind the eye. The dwarf sperm whale has a relatively larger dorsal fin than the pygmy. Both species commonly float almost motionless in the water. When disturbed, they may evacuate the contents of their gut to produce a reddish brown foul – smelling cloud. This probably acts as a distraction or deterrent to potential predators, allowing the small whale to make its escape.

Pygmy and dwarf sperm whales are sufficiently distinct from the sperm whale to be placed in a taxonomic family of their own, the kogiidae.

Baird's & Arnoux's Beaked Whales

Baird's and Arnoux's are the largest beaked whales. They are extremely similar in appearance; indeed; some scientist consider them to be the same species. Both have slender beaks, and adult of both sexes have four protruding teeth at the front of the lower haw, of which only the front two are normally visible when the mouth is closed. The size and passion of the teeth, along with the shape of the head, distinguish them from other beaked whales.

Both species are deep divers, descending for up to an hour to hunt. Arnoux's appears to be more social. Pods of 6 to 10 are quite common, with gatherings of up to 80 individuals on occasion. Group size in Baird's seem to be smaller. Arnoux's is one of the few whales that hunts beneath the pack ice in the Southern Ocean.

Northern & Southern Bottlenose Whale

The northern and Southern bottlenose whales are two species separated from each other by thousands of miles. They live in cool temperate waters in different hemispheres. Although similar appearance, and seemingly in behavior, their histories of exploitation are very different. Norwegian, British, and Canadian whales intensively hunted the northern species between the 1850s and mid – 1900s, and their numbers may remain depleted. The southern bottlenose was rarely if ever hunted and probably remains the most common beaked whale in Southern polar and sub polar waters.

With their bulbous forehead and light – colored melon and beak, adult bottlenoses are readily distinguishable from other beaked whale at close range. Their name comes from the shape of their beak, which is compared to an old – fashioned round – bottomed bottle. Bottlenose whale dive deep to feed on squid and fish, but also take bottom – living animals such as starfish and sea cucumbers. Both species will feed close to pack ice and, like Arnoux's whales. They deep - dive in near freezing conditions.

Cuvier's Beaked Whale

Cuvier's beaked whale is widely distributed from tropical to temperate waters and is fairly common. Whale watchers sometimes liken its pale head, with its short, slightly upturned beak, to that of a goose. Adult males have two small teeth protruding from the front of the lower jaw and their pale coloration often extends to the shoulders.

Until recently, Cuvier's beaked whale was best known from stranded specimens. At sea, close – up views are needed to distinguish this species from other beaked whales, in particular the bottlenose whales of cooler waters and the little - known Longman's beaked whale of warmer waters. Immature and female Cuvier's have duller coloration than adult males and so are easier to confuse with other species. As with other small – to medium - sized beaked whales, Cuvier's has escaped the intensive hunting inflicted on many larger whale species. Like other beaked whale species, Cuvier's is a deep diver. It prefers deep – sea squid and fish but will hunt bottom – living fish and invertebrates as well.

True's Beaked Whale

True's Beaked whale is named after museum curator Frederick W. True, who in 1913 described a specimen stranded in North Carolina. He gave this Mesoplodon Species the tag mirus, meaning "Wonderful." In 2001 an adult whale breached 24 times alongside a ferry in the Bay of Biscay and it was photograph at sea for the first time. The rare image opposite was captured that day.

There appear to be two population of True's whales, one in the North Atlantic and one in the Southern Indian Ocean. There are difference in the body pigmentation and skull structure in specimens from the two population and they well represent subspecies. The specimen depicted opposite is a North Atlantic male.

In the localities where they occur, True's beaked whales could be confused with Cuvier's, Blainville's, or Sowerby's beaked whales. Cuvier's has a short beak, whereas in Blainville's the beak is strongly arched. True's beaked adult males have two small teeth visible at the tip of the lower jaw, whereas in Sowerby's they are in the middle. The southern form of True's beaked whale is extremely similar to Hector's beaked whale and longman's beaked whale, which occur in the same locality.

Sowerby's Beaked Whale

Sowerby's baked whale is also called the North Atlantic beaked whale and, like the Northern bottlenose whale, its distribution is restricted to that locality. Sowerby's was the first beaked whale to be named. English watercolor artist Sowerby identified it in 1804 from a specimen standard in Moray Firth, Scotland. However, little is known about the live animal. It is relatively unobtrusive and rarely displays at the surface, although sometimes after a dive its head emerges from the water at a steep angle.

Sowerby's beaked whale has a fairly slim beak and a narrow head with a bulge just in front of the blowhole. Sowerby's can be mistaken for Blainville's, Gervais', or true's beaked whales, all of which are Mesoplodon species that can be found in the same locality. Adult Sowerby's males have two teeth (one on each side) about halfway along the lower jaw. In adult True's males the teeth are at the tip of the jaw, and in adult Blainville's males they are on a raised platform in the middle of the jaw. Gervais', the species that is most similar to sawerby's, has smaller teeth located slightly farther forward. Females or juveniles of all four species may be impossible to reliably distinguish at sea.

Blainville's Beaked whale

Blainville's beaked whale was described in 1817 from a remarkable fragment of jawbone. On testing, the bone was found to be even denser than elephant ivory, giving the whale its other common name, the dense beaked whale. Various theories have been proposed as to why this whale has the densest bone in the animal kingdom. Scientist currently favor the theory that it provides protection for males when they head butt each other in fights over females.

Blainville's beaked whale is widely distributed between temperate and topical waters. Quite similar in appearance to Sowerby's beaked whale, its most striking difference is the highly arch lower jaw. In adult males, two teeth emerges from the top of the arch like tusks. In some individuals, barnacles grow on the teeth and give the appearance two pompons stuck on top of the whale's head. Blainville's is one of the few beaked whales with wild populations that have been closely studied for long periods.


Adult male narwhals, with their unique spiral tusk, are the stuff of myths and legends. As late as the 17th century, traders had a vested interest in claiming that the tusk came from unicorns, and they were sold as such, fetching high prices. Some male narwhals grow two tusks, and occasionally a female grows one. Scientists have long argued over the function of the tusk, with ideas ranging from its use as a probe to disturb creatures on the Sea bottom, to a device to drill through ice, to a spar to impale prey. Almost certainly the tusk is a display of health and vigor, and males use it in ritualized combat over access to females. In spring, adult males can sometimes be seen clashing their tusks above the water surface.

A narwhal changes color as it grows older. As a newborn it is almost uniformly gray and at one to two years old it turns purplish black. As the animal grows into adulthood, small black or brown blotches predominate, with a pale background gradually spreading upward from the underside. In old age, the blotches become fewer and the pale color dominates. Indigenous peoples in Greenland and Northern Canada continue to take several hundred narwhals each year for a wide variety of whale products.


Early whalers dubbed the beluga the "Sea canary" because of its wide repertoire of sounds. These include squeaks, clicks, twitters, creaking sounds, and moos, which can even be heard through the hull of a boat. Apart from their stunning pure white or pale yellow color, belugas are also unusual among cetaceans in having very mobile, expressive mouths and flexible necks. Whether changes in facial expression simply accompany other actions, such as sucking in prey or making sounds, or have meanings in themselves in unknown.

Like narwhals, belugas change color as they grow, but unlike narwhales, belugas are never blotchy. State gray when born, belugas gradually whiten until they are five to 10 years old. Young belugas can be confused with young narwhals, but both tend to be found among adults of their own species, aiding identification.

In total, several thousand belugas are killed every year by indigenous peoples in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Russia, but chemical pollution is also a threat. Belugas in the St. Lawrence River, for example, contain high concentrations of contaminants that, when combined, make these animals more liable to congenital deformities and cancers.

Killer Whale

The killer whale, the subject of several Hollywood movies and numerous television since the 1970s, is one of the best known on all whales. Scientist have been studying the killer whales. Scientist have been studying the killer whale populations off the Pacific coast of North America for more than 40 years. The killer whale, so named by early whalers because of its attack on other whales, is a supremely accomplished hunter. It fine – tunes its hunting strategy according to the prey available locally. Described as "the wolves of the Sea," killer whales cooperate within social groups to overpower prey larger than themselves. Despite their sinister name, killer whales in the wild are not known to attack people. Indeed, they are now recognized as animals of some considerable intelligence and great social cohesion.

In some parts of the world scientists have describe three kinds of killer whales. Resident (Local) killer whales from social groups (pods), typically of 10 individuals or more, which roam within a predictable range year after year. Transient (Traveler) killer whales travel in smaller pods, roam more widely in shallow water, and seem to specialize in hunting warm – blooded prey – other marine mammals and occasionally birds. Offshore killer whales live in deeper water, travel in larger pods, and tend to be smaller in size, hunt mostly fish. Scientist can tell the three forms apart, not just by their habits but also by their physical characteristics, such as subtle differences in the shape and size of their dorsal fins and in their gray saddle patches.

Long - & Short – Finned Pilot Whales

Pilot whales are recognizable by their blunt heads, dark bodies, and broad, curved – back dorsal fins. The two species (long – finned, below; short- finned, p. 86) are difficult to tell apart at Sea because their flippers – the key distinguishing feature – are not readily visible unless they beach or spy hop. However the two species favor different water temperatures – the short – finned species preferring warmer – and their distributions overlap only slightly. The long – finned species has two distinct populations, one in the northern Hemisphere and the other in the Southern.

Pilot whales usually travel in groups of 10 – 60, and sometimes come together in thousands. Long – fined pilots are the most commonly stranded whale, and when one individual strands, other in the pod stay with it and usually stand as well.

False Killer Whale

This sleek predator is much smaller than the killer whale and lacks its bold black and white markings. It is of similar length to long – and short – finned pilot whales, but is more streamlined and has a more dolphin – like appearance. Its behavior is also dolphin – like, as its leaps entirely out of the water and rides the bow waves of passing vessels. The false killer is about twice the length of the pygmy killer and melon - headed whales, with which it might otherwise be confused.

False killer whales, like their larger namesakes, have a varied diet and can hunt a wide range of prey. Like killer whales, they fine – tune their hunting strategy according to the prey species locally available. Observes have reported them attacking and eating dolphins and even taking bites out of sperm whales. They have a reputation for stealing high – value fish, such as tuna, caught on baited long lines set by fisherman.

Like the long – finned pilot, the false killer seems to be particularly susceptible to stranding, and schools of several hundred sometimes run aground. In June 2005, about 100 false killer beached in geography bay, Western Australia, and were refloated by more than 1,000 volunteers working under the guidance of experts.