Diving in the heart of the seas are some of the intelligent and huge creatures of the animal kingdom — the whales. In this article, we uncover the intricacies and diversity of the different types of whales. From the colossal blue whale to the swift dolphins, this journey takes you beyond the surface to explore what sets these magnificent creatures apart.
Related Read: Whale Facts.
Whales are a group of aquatic mammals under the Cetacea order, which comes from the Latin word Cetus, meaning large sea animal. This group branches into two suborders: Mysticeti, or baleen whale, and Odontoceti, or toothed whale.
The sea's gentle giants include species like the humpback and Antarctic minke whales. They have baleen plates that act like a filter, straining tiny prey from the water. They've got two blowholes and are generally larger.
This group includes sperm whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Instead of baleen plates, they have conical teeth, perfect for eating fish and squids. They have a single blowhole, and while they might be smaller, they are nimble and swift in the water.
Now, let’s dive deep into some cetacean species. The first seven types of whales below are baleen, and the other eight are toothed.
Did you know the Blue Whale is the largest whale species and animal ever on Earth? These magnificent creatures can grow up to 98 feet and weigh as much as 220 tons!
Despite their unrivaled dimensions, the blue whale sports a streamlined body to slice through the ocean depths with surprising ease.
Proportional to their size, their blowhole can release a plume of air and water, shooting skyward to a height of up to 40 feet. Our first type of whale also has the largest heart, weighing over a thousand pounds.
Furthermore, Blue Whales can be found in all oceans except the Arctic.
Even though they are not as big as blue whales, humpback whales have long, slender pectoral fins that are a third of their body length. Their head and flippers are dotted with small, rounded bumps called tubercles, which make them maneuver better under the ocean2.
To hunt, humpbacks swim in shrinking circles and blow bubbles beneath a school of fish. This creates a bubble net trapping the prey. Then, in a sudden rush, the whales swim upward through the net, mouths wide open, consuming thousands of fish in one gulp.
Read more: Humpback Whale Facts.
The Gray Whale sports a distinct gray-and-white pattern, low hump, and interestingly they lack dorsal fins. Instead, this type of whale has a series of knuckle-like humps leading to its tail. The white patches on their skin are the marks whale lice and other sea creatures leave.
When it comes to the longest mammal migration, gray whales stole the throne. Since they are endangered species, researchers attached satellite-monitoring tags to seven whales, but only three survived the trip.
Varvara, a 9-year-old female western gray whale, swam almost 14,000 miles from the icy Northeast Russia to the warm waters of Mexico and back in 172 days.
Bowhead Whale has a distinctive, bow-shaped skull accounting for a third of its body length. Their high-domed, thick-boned skulls work like a natural icebreaker, enabling them to push through the frozen surface for a breath of air.
This type of whale also holds the record for the longest-living mammal on Earth. A study analyzed an old specimen and found it could have lived as long as 268 years4.
Their long lifespan is believed to be due to their slow metabolism and the ability to store large amounts of blubber, helping them survive their frigid habitats.
With a maximum length of just 6.5 meters, the Pygmy Right Whale is the smallest of all baleen whales. But don't let its size fool you. This fascinating creature sports an arched, frown-like lower lip, unique among types of whales. Plus, their dorsal fins are more curved.
Unlike other whales, Pygmy Right Whales are more elusive. They often travel alone or in pairs and rarely in small groups. They also don’t break and show their tails. Even their movement is different. Instead of using only their tails, they use their entire body to swim through the water5.
As the second largest animal3, Fin Whales can stretch up to 80 feet long. Also known as the "greyhound of the sea,” they can reach impressive speeds of up to 29 miles per hour. They are distinguishable with their white undersides and dark gray backs.
Common Minke Whales sport a distinctive white band on their flippers, making them stand out against their dark grey bodies. These second-smallest baleen whales have streamlined, torpedo-shaped bodies that can reach an impressive 35 feet in length and weigh up to 10 tons.
Sei Whales are the third largest baleen whales, boasting a body length of up to 60 feet. These creatures' streamlined bodies showcase a dark blue or grey, blending into white on their slender undersides.
They predominantly prefer the deeper, offshore waters of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans, including various temperature ranges.
Rice's whale, formerly known as Bryde's, is a baleen whale with an impressive length spanning 38 to 42 feet. This type of whale has three prominent ridges that adorn the top of their heads.
With 26 mature individuals left in the wild, Rice's whale faces a significant threat, designated as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.
Their primary habitat, the Gulf of Mexico, is increasingly at risk due to anthropogenic factors such as marine traffic, fishing activities, and oil spills, necessitating conservation efforts.
The Antarctic Minke Whale is the third smallest baleen whale, featuring a streamlined body that can reach lengths of about 35 feet. Their smooth bodies are predominantly black or dark grey, providing a stark contrast to the white underbelly, which is often mottled with spots of pale yellow.
Upon closer inspection, we can spot two unique features of the Antarctic Minke Whale: the oddly shaped rostrum, pointed and narrow like a torpedo, and their baleen plates, the longest in any baleen whale species.
These plates in the upper jaw filter tiny organisms from seawater, serving as their primary feeding mechanism.
Bottlenose Dolphins are an absolute joy to observe. They are known for their playful behavior and impressive brains. These creatures are characterized by their gray hue and snout shaped like a bottle.
The Bottlenose Dolphin employs a sophisticated hunting style, demonstrating great intelligence and teamwork. They often use a method known as herding, where a group of dolphins will encircle a school of fish and take turns swooping in to eat.
This strategy ensures food for all members and underscores the complex social structure within dolphin pods.
These types of whales are typically found in warm and temperate seas worldwide, mainly in offshore waters, but they may also frequent bays, estuaries, and, in certain locations, coastal areas.
Related Read: Dolphin Facts.
Spinner Dolphins are known for their elongated bodies and unique coloration. Their distinct hues range from dark grey on the dorsal area to subtly light, blending into a pale pink or white on the underbelly.
Notable for their acrobatic prowess, these dolphins' name originates from their ability to leap from the water and perform an array of elaborate spins in mid-air before re-entry.
They inhabit warm oceans worldwide, particularly in the shallow waters of the tropics and subtropics. Spinners follow a unique cycle daily, spending the day in deep offshore waters and migrating toward the shore at dusk to feed in shallow waters.
Sperm Whales have a large, squarish head, which makes up about a third of their total body length. With lengths that can stretch up to a staggering 20.5 meters and weights that can tip the scales at 45 tons, these creatures are the largest-toothed whales.
Their skin, typically a deep gray, can take on a brownish or even black hue under sunlight, lending them an air of mystique.
Additionally, this type of whale holds the largest brain in the world, weighing up to 20 pounds.
The Pygmy Sperm Whales stretch a modest 11 feet in length, rivaling the size of an average canoe. Wrapped in a uniform slate-grey skin, the whale's underbelly lightens to a softer tone, and its dorsal fin sits far back along its body, contributing to its distinct appearance.
These whales dwell primarily in deep oceans, favoring temperate and tropical waters. They usually travel alone or in pairs.
Known for producing rare ambergris or grey amber, the Pygmy Sperm Whale's intestines have this precious waxy substance ideal for perfumery.
Being the smallest whale species, the Dwarf Sperm Whale has a typical length of 8 to 9 feet and weighs around 600 lbs. It is characterized by a peculiarly shaped, shark-like body cloaked in a dark gray color on its dorsal area that fades as it descends to the belly.
One of the unique features native to this species is its "pseudo-gill," a faint, pale line on the sides of its body, resembling a large fish. Interestingly, they can release dark reddish ink to confuse their predators when threatened or frightened.
Killer whales, Orcas, are a striking sight due to their easily recognizable black and white colorings. Measured up to 32 feet in length and weighing up to six tons, their size is truly imposing.
The name of this toothed whale originates from sailors who witnessed them killing other whales. Researchers have evidence of them predating a beaked whale family in the southern hemisphere.
Moreover, they are known for their innovative hunting technique that involves working in teams to take down their prey. Due to their advanced social structure and intelligence, Orcas are often called the "wolves of the sea."
At first glance, the Beluga Whales grab attention with their distinct, all-white exterior against the blue frigid seas. Sporting a stout body around 13 to 20 feet long, these marine mammals are also easily identified by their melon, a fatty, bulbous forehead that aids echolocation.
These whales are often dubbed sea canaries due to their unique and rhythmic vocalizations. Their sophisticated sound production system allows them to communicate, navigate, and retain harmony within their pod, making them one of the ocean's most sociable species.
Related Read: Animal That Starts With B.
Harbor porpoises, one of the smallest whale species, sport a distinctly compact and robust body, typically under 6 feet long. They have blunt beaks, triangular dorsal fins, and shades of gray and white.
They make a unique sound, earning them the nickname "Puffing Pig." Its forceful breath stands out, much like a pig's snort. Plus, porpoise means pig fish.
Living alone or in small groups, they are frequent tenants of coastal and offshore waters, often spotted in the North Atlantic, North Pacific, and Black Sea.
Primarily distinguished by its prominent tusk, the Narwhal resembles a creature from a fairy tale. Sporting a length of around 13 to 20 feet, excluding its 7 to 10-foot-long helical tusk, it's aptly nicknamed the "unicorn of the sea."
Instead of using their tusks to spear their prey, Narwhals employ a unique hunting technique. They stun their favorite fish, Arctic cod, with powerful, quick movements of their muscular bodies and then devour the disoriented prey.
Furthermore, research on the Narwhal's echolocation skills revealed that they produce highly directed clicks, enabling intense forward scanning and potentially reducing distracting echoes.
This distinct narrow sonar beam, originating not from their tusk but the functional anatomy of their head, allows them to have the most directional sonar detected in nature1.
These adaptations made them survive the freezing temperatures of the Arctic Ocean.
Related read: Animals that start with N.
The Blainville's Beaked Whale is recognized for its distinctive crescent-shaped, low-rise dorsal fin and elongated, robust body. This medium-sized marine mammal, stretching up to 14 feet in length, can weigh up to one ton.
These beaked whales sport a uniformly dark grey color, with older males often appearing lighter due to the development of algae on their skin. A defining feature among mature males is the presence of two visible teeth protruding from their lower jaw, resulting in a "beak-like" appearance, hence their name.
While some whale populations have made recoveries, others are still critically endangered. For instance, the Humpback Whale, once hunted to the brink of extinction, has made a remarkable comeback and is now listed by IUCN as a species of least concern.
On the other hand, the North Atlantic Right Whale is one of the most endangered whale species, with only around 250 individuals remaining. Other species on the brink of extinction include the South Asian River Dolphin, Vaquita, and the Rice’s Whale.
Whales face a myriad of threats, ranging from climate change to overfishing. Among these threats, noise pollution has emerged as a significant concern, interfering with their communication, hunting, and navigation capabilities. Immediate action, thus, is vital to protect these crucial marine creatures and preserve their habitats.
Related read: Why do whales beach themselves?
Overall, the array of cetaceans, from the monumental blue whale to the unicorn-like Narwhal, showcases a rich tapestry of diversity in their shared aquatic world. As we continually discover something new in each species, it emphasizes our responsibility to ensure their survival. Let's work towards conserving these magnificent creatures and protecting their habitats.
Koblitz, J. C., Stilz, P., Rasmussen, M. H., & Laidre, K. L. (2016). Highly Directional Sonar Beam of Narwhals (Monodon monoceros) Measured with a Vertical 16 Hydrophone Array. PLOS ONE, 11(11), e0162069.
Fish, F. E., Weber, P. W., Murray, M. M., & Howle, L. E. (2011). The Tubercles on Humpback Whales’ Flippers: Application of Bio-Inspired Technology. Integrative and Comparative Biology, 51(1), 203–213.
Goldbogen, J. A., Calambokidis, J., Shadwick, R. E., Oleson, E. M., McDonald, M. A., & Hildebrand, J. A. (2006). Kinematics of foraging dives and lunge-feeding in fin whales. Journal of Experimental Biology, 209(7), 1231-1244.
Mayne, B., Berry, O., Davies, C. R., Farley, J., & Jarman, S. (2019). A genomic predictor of lifespan in vertebrates. Scientific Reports, 9(1).
Kemper, C. M. (2009). Pygmy right whale. In Elsevier eBooks (pp. 939–941).
Isabela is a determined millennial passionate about continuously seeking out ways to make an impact. With a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering with honors, Isabela’s research expertise and interest in artistic works, coupled with a creative mindset, offers readers a fresh take on different environmental, social, and personal development topics.