19 Types of Whales

Species Profiles of Cetaceans - Whales, Dolphins and Porpoies

There are about 86 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises in the Order Cetacea, which is further divided into two sub-orders, the Odontocetes, or toothed whales and the Mysticetes, or baleen whales. Cetaceans can differ greatly in their appearance, distribution, and behavior. 

Balaenoptera musculus
WolfmanSF/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Blue whales are thought to be the largest animal ever to live on the Earth. They reach lengths up to about 100 feet and weights of an amazing 100-150 tons. Their skin is a beautiful gray-blue color, often with a mottling of light spots.

Fin Whale - Balaenoptera physalus

Fin Whale
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The fin whale is the second-largest animal in the world. Its sleek appearance caused sailors to call it the "greyhound of the sea." Fin whales are a streamlined baleen whale and the only animal known to be asymmetrically-colored, as they have a white patch on their lower jaw on their right side, and this is absent on the whale's left side.

Sei Whale - Balaenoptera borealis

Sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis) mother and calf as seen from the air. The original NOAA image has been modified by cropping.
Christin Khan/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Sei (pronounced "say") whales are one of the fastest whales species. They are a streamlined animal with a dark back and white underside and very curved dorsal fin. Their name came from the Norwegian word for pollock (a type of fish) - seje - because sei whales and pollock often appeared off the coast of Norway at the same time.

Humpback Whale - Megaptera novaeangliae

Humpback Whale underwater shot
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The humpback whale is known as the "big-winged New Englander" because it has long pectoral fins, or flippers, and the first humpback scientifically described was in New England waters. Its majestic tail and variety of spectacular behaviors make this whale a favorite of whale watchers. Humpbacks are a medium-sized baleen whale and have a thick blubber layer, making them clumsier in appearance than some of their more streamlined relatives. However, they are still well-known for their spectacular breaching behavior, which involves the whale jumping out of the water. The exact reason for this behavior is still unknown, but it is one of many fascinating humpback whale facts.

Breaching off Alaskan coast
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The bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) got its name from its high, arched jaw that resembles a bow. They are a cold-water whale that lives in the Arctic. The bowhead's blubber layer is over 1 1/2 feet thick, which provides insulation against the cold waters in which they live. Bowheads are still hunted by natives whalers in the Arctic. 

North Atlantic Right Whale - Eubalaena glacialis

Eubalaena glacialis with calf
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The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered marine mammals, with only about 400 individuals remaining. It was known as the "right" whale to hunt by whalers because of its slow speed, tendency to float when killed, and thick blubber layer. The callosities on the right whale's head help scientists identify and catalog individuals. Right whales spend their summer feeding season in cold, northern latitudes off Canada and New England and their winter breeding season off the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

Southern Right Whale - Eubalaena australis

Southern right whale (Peninsula Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina)
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The southern right whale is a large, bulky-looking baleen whale that reaches lengths of 45-55 feet and weights up to 60 tons. They have the curious habit of "sailing" in strong winds by lifting its huge tail flukes above the water surface. Like many other large whale species, the southern right whale migrates between warmer, low-latitude breeding grounds and colder, high-latitude feeding grounds. Their breeding grounds are fairly distinct, and include South Africa, Argentina, Australia, and parts of New Zealand.

North Pacific Right Whale - Eubalaena japonica

North Pacific right whale by John Durban, NOAA
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North Pacific right whales have dwindled in population so much that there are only a few hundred remaining. There is a western population that is found in the Sea of Okhotsk off Russia, which is thought to number in the hundreds, and an eastern population that lives in the Bering Sea off Alaska. This population numbers about 30.

Bryde's Whale - Balaenoptera brydei

A B. brydei in False Bay, South Africa, showing upright dorsal fin, which is often nicked or frayed on its trailing edge (shown here)
Jolene Bertoldi/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0
The Bryde's (pronounced "broodus") whale is named for Johan Bryde, who built the first whaling stations in South Africa. These whales are 40-55 feet long and weigh up to about 45 tons. They are found most frequently in tropical and subtropical waters. There may be two Bryde's whale species - a coastal species (which would be called Balaenoptera edeni) and an offshore form ( Balaenoptera brydei).
Omura's whale
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Omura's whale was designated as a species in 2003. Originally, it was thought to be a smaller form of the Bryde's whale. This whale species is not well-known. They are thought to reach lengths of about 40 feet and weights of about 22 tons, and live in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Gray Whale - Eschrichtius robustus

Una ballena gris adulta y su cría se acercan a los turistas. / An adult gray whale and its calf approach tourists.
Jose Eugenio/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0

The gray whale is a medium-sized baleen whale with a beautiful gray coloration that has white spots and patches. This species has been divided into two population stocks, one of which has recovered from the brink of extinction, and one that is nearly extinct.

Common Minke Whale - Balaenoptera acutorostrata

View of a common minke whale underwater, showing the diagnostic white flipper band
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Minke whales are small, but still about 20-30 feet long. There are three subspecies of minke whale - the North Atlantic minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata acutorostrata), the North Pacific minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata scammoni), and the dwarf minke whale (whose scientific name has not yet been determined).

Antarctic Minke Whale

Antarctic Minke Whale
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In the 1990's, Antarctic minke whales were declared a separate species from the common minke whale. These whales are typically found in the ​Antarctic region in the summer and closer to the equator (e.g., around South America, ​Africa, and Australia) in the winter. They are the subject of a controversial hunt by Japan each year under a special permit for scientific research purposes.

Sperm Whale - Physeter macrocephalus

A mother sperm whale and her calf off the coast of Mauritius. The calf has remoras attached to its body.
Gabriel Barathieu/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0
Sperm whales are the largest odontocete (toothed whale). They can grow to about 60 feet in length, have dark, wrinkled skin, blocky heads and stout bodies.
Gabriel Barathieu
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With their beautiful black-and-white coloration, orcas have an unmistakable appearance.  They are toothed whales who gather in family-oriented pods of 10-50 whales. They are also popular animals for marine parks, a practice that is growing more controversial.

Beluga Whale - Delphinapterus leucas

A beluga whale
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The beluga whale was called the "sea canary" by sailors because of its distinctive vocalizations, which could sometimes be heard through the hull of a ship. Beluga whales are found in arctic waters and in the St. Lawrence River. The beluga's all-white coloration and rounded forehead makes it distinctive from other species. They are a toothed whale, and find their prey using echolocation. The population of beluga whales in Cook Inlet, Alaska is listed as endangered, but other populations are unlisted.

Bottlenose Dolphin - Tursiops truncatus

Bottlenose Dolphin
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Bottlenose dolphins are one of the most well-known and well-studied marine mammals. Their gray coloration and "smiling" appearance makes them easily recognizable. Bottlenose dolphins are toothed whales who live in pods that can range in size up to several hundred animals. They may also be found close to shore, especially in the southeastern U.S. and along the Gulf Coast.

Risso's Dolphin - Grampus griseus

Risso's dolphin
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Risso's dolphins are medium-sized toothed whales that grow to about 13 feet in length. Adults have stout gray bodies that may have a heavily-scarred appearance.

Pygmy whale washed ashore on Hutchinson Island, Florida
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The pygmy sperm whale is an odontocete, or toothed whale. This whale has teeth only on its lower jaw, like the much larger sperm whale. It is a fairly small whale with a squarish head and is stocky in appearance. The pygmy sperm whale is small as whales go, reaching average lengths of about 10 feet and weights of about 900 pounds.