Facts about whales
A variety of fluke profiles - spot the one you saw!
Facts on whales helping with identification
- Killer whales (Orcinus arca), have black-and-white markings and tall, upright dorsal fins.
- Northern bottlenose whales (Hyperoodon ampullatus), have massive foreheads.
- Pilot whales (Globicephala), are black and no beak is visible.
- Begula whales (Delphinapterus leucas), are a magnificent white.
- Knick on dorsal fins can be used to identify a certain whales in a colony.
- Northern right whales (Eubalaena glacialis), have encrustations on their heads and jaws.
- Humpback whales, have distinctive markings on the underside of their tails.
- Different spouting ways and diving sequences. (Estimated speed of air exhaled through spout = ± 480 kph)
- Streamlined, torpedo-shaped bodies propelled by vertical beat of horizontal tail flukes.
- Most cetaceans have a prominent upper jaw in front of the eyes.
- Baleen whales have a long upper jaw, narrow and arched or wide and flat, with baleen plates for sieving
food from the water, flatness of the head above eyes and double blowhole.
- Toothed whales have a narrow straight upper jaw, at least one pair of teeth in lower jaw, a 'knob' above
the eyes and upper jaw and the blowhole is high up on the forehead.
- Baleen whales have wide separated lower jaws.
- Toothed whales have very narrow lower jaw consisting of two jawbones fused together.
- Eyes are small with no eyebrows or lashes.
- Ears are normally difficult to spot as it is often hidden from view.
Body and Fins
- Well developed forelimbs (flippers) are placed behind the head and below the midline.
- Flippers vary in size and shape - usually used for steering.
- Prominent dorsal fins on the back or behind mid-length. (Absent in some species)
- Body tapers into the tail section - with flat sides and horizontal flukes.
- 3 dorsal fin shapes are documented.
The blue whale is the heaviest and longest animal on Earth. The average adult length is 25m (82ft) in males
and 26.2m (86ft) in females, with body weights of 90-120 tonnes.
Hector's dolphin is the world's smallest cetacean. They may be only 1.2m (3ft11in) long when fully grown.
Although, taking average lengths, the finless porpoise is probably the lightest weighing 30-45kg (66-69lbs);
nearly 3000 finless porpoises would weigh roughly the same as one blue whale.
A 'blow' or 'spout' is the cloud of water droplets produced above a whale's head when it blows out. The
tallest blow belongs to the blue whale where blows of up to 12m (39ft 5in) have been reported.
A blue whale eats up to 4 tonnes of krill everyday. This is equivalent to eating a fully grown African
elephant every day.
Early whalers reported dive times of more than 2 hours for northern bottlenose whales.
The sperm whale is believed to dive deeper than any other cetacean. They have been known to dive as deep as
One bowhead whale was reported to have been 130 years old when it died!
The sperm whale has the world's heaviest brain which can weigh up to 9.2kg (20lb 5oz). This compares with the
average 1.4kg (3lb 1oz) for the brain of an adult human.
Tallest dorsal fin:
The huge dorsal fin of the bull orca (killer whale) can reach a remarkable height of 1.8m (6ft), roughly as
tall as a man.
A bull orca, has been timed swimming at 55km/h (34 mph) in the eastern North Pacific.
The baiji or Chinese river dolphin, is the rarest dolphin in the world. It lives in the Yangtze River in
China. There are thought to be perhaps less than 100 of these dolphins remaining and the planned damming of
the river will probably mean that the dolphin will become extinct in the next few years.
The vaquita, a porpoise that lives in the Gulf of California is the rarest marine dolphin. Just a few hundred
animals are thought to still exist.
Whaling decimated the populations of large whales. Today, just 300 northern right whales remain, living off
the east coast of North America.
Male humpback whales sing the longest and most complex songs in the animal kingdom. Each song lasts for half
an hour or more and consists of several main components. The aim of the singing is probably to woo females
and to frighten off rival males. The songs can be heard underwater hundreds, or even thousands, of miles
For a long time the gray whale was believed to undertake the longest known migration of any mammal. Hugging
the North American coastline, it swims from its winter breeding grounds in Baja California, Mexico, to its
summer feeding grounds in the rich waters of the Bering Sea in the Arctic and back again. This amounts to a
total annual distance of 12000-20000km (7452-12420 miles).
In a gray whale's lifetime of 40 years or more, this is equivalent to a return trip to the moon! In recent
years, researchers have begun tracking the migration of humpback whales from Antarctic waters to the equator
off Colombia and Costa Rica. One female whale was spotted off the Antarctic peninsula and then resighted five
months later off Colombia. Even taking the shortest route this would have been a journey of over 8400km
Did You Know:
- Orcas are, in fact, the largest member of the dolphin family.
- Whales and dolphins do not sleep like we do, but they rest on the surface of the sea or catnap for a few
moments while they are swimming. Each side of the brain takes it in turns to 'switch off' while the other
half stays vigilant and keeps the animal breathing (which is a voluntary action in cetaceans).
- When whales and dolphins open their eyes underwater, special greasy tears protect them from the stinging
- The black and white markings on the underside of humpback whale tails are all unique. This enables
researchers to tell the whales apart by taking pictures of the tail which is lifted clear of the water when
the whale dives. Bottlenose dolphins and orcas can be individually identified from the different markings and
nicks on their dorsal fins.
- Cetaceans without teeth are filter feeders. They have what look like long, furry combs in their mouths. These
are called "baleen plates" and hang from their upper jaws to form a special sieve. A baleen whale feeds by
taking in large mouthfuls of water and then filtering out all the fish or krill (small shrimp-like organisms
that live in the sea) ready to swallow. It may eat thousands or even hundreds of thousands of animals in a
- The bowhead has longer baleen than any other whale. At 4.5m (15ft) it would be twice the height from ceiling
to the floor in most modern houses!