19 Types of Whales

From Giant Blue Whales to Bottlenose Dolphins

There are nearly 90 species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises in the order Cetacea, which is divided into two suborders, the Odontocetes, or toothed whales, and the Mysticetes, or toothless baleen whales. Here are profiles of 19 Cetaceans, which differ greatly in appearance, distribution, and behavior:

Blue Whale: Balaenoptera Musculus

Balaenoptera musculus
WolfmanSF/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Blue whales are thought to be the largest animals ever to have lived on Earth. They reach lengths up to 100 feet and weigh 100 to 150 tons. Their skin is a beautiful gray-blue color, often with a mottling of light spots.

Fin Whale: Balaenoptera Physalus

Fin Whale
Aqqa Rosing-Asvid/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0

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 only on the right 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 whale species. They are streamlined, with a dark back and white underside and very curved dorsal fin. The name came from seje, the Norwegian word for pollock, a type of fish, because sei whales and pollock often appeared off Norway's coast at the same time.

Humpback Whale: Megaptera Novaeangliae

Humpback Whale underwater shot
Kurzon/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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-size baleen whale with a thick blubber layer, making them clumsier in appearance than some of their more streamlined relatives. They are well known for their spectacular breaching behavior, in which they jump out of the water. The reason for this behavior is unknown, but it's one of many fascinating humpback whale facts.

Bowhead Whale: Balaena Mysticetus

Breaching off Alaskan coast
Kate Stafford/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0

The bowhead whale got its name from its high, arched jaw that resembles a bow. They're cold-water whales that live in the Arctic. The bowhead's blubber layer is over 1 1/2 feet thick, which provides insulation against the cold waters. Bowheads are still hunted by native whalers in the Arctic. 

North Atlantic Right Whale: Eubalaena Glacialis

Eubalaena glacialis with calf
Pcb21/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered marine mammals, with only about 400 remaining. It was known as the "right" whale for whalers to hunt 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)
Michaël CATANZARITI/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The southern right whale is a large, bulky-looking baleen whale that reaches 45 to 55 feet in length and weighs up to 60 tons. They have the curious habit of "sailing" in strong winds by lifting their 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. These 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
John Durban/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

North Pacific right whales have dwindled in population so much that only a few hundred remain. A western population in the Sea of Okhotsk off Russia is thought to number in the hundreds, and an eastern population in the Bering Sea off Alaska numbers about 30.

Bryde's Whale: Balaenoptera Edeni

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. They are 40 to 55 feet long and weigh up to 45 tons and are found most frequently in tropical and subtropical waters. There are two species: Bryde’s/Eden’s whale (Balaenoptera edeni edeni), a smaller form found primarily in coastal waters in the Indian and western Pacific oceans, and Bryde’s whale (Balaenoptera edeni brydei), a larger form found primarily in offshore waters.

Omura's Whale: Balaenoptera Omurai

Omura's whale
Salvatore Cerchio/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0

Omura's whale, originally thought to be a smaller form of the Bryde's whale, was designated as a species in 2003 and isn't well known. It is thought to reach lengths of 40 feet and weigh 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-size baleen whale with beautiful gray coloration and white spots and patches. This species has been divided into two population stocks, one of which has recovered from the brink of extinction and another that is nearly extinct.

Common Minke Whale: Balaenoptera Acutorostrata

View of a common minke whale underwater, showing the diagnostic white flipper band
Rui Prieto/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0

Minke whales are small but still 20 to 30 feet long. There are three subspecies of minke whale: the North Atlantic minke (Balaenoptera acutorostrata acutorostrata), the North Pacific minke (Balaenoptera acutorostrata scammoni), and the dwarf minke (which had not received a scientific name as of November 2018).

Antarctic Minke Whale: Balaenoptera Bonaerensis

Antarctic Minke Whale
Brocken Inaglory/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0

In the 1990s, 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 (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 grow to 60 feet in length and have dark, wrinkled skin, blocky heads, and stout bodies.

Orca: Orcinus Orca

Gabriel Barathieu
Robert Pittman/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

With their beautiful black-and-white coloration, orcas, also called killer whales, have an unmistakable appearance. They are toothed whales that gather in family-oriented pods of 10 to 50. They are popular animals for marine parks, a practice that is growing more controversial.

Beluga Whale: Delphinapterus Leucas

A beluga whale
Greg5030//Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0

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 make it distinctive from other species. A toothed whale, it finds its prey using echolocation. The population of beluga whales in Cook Inlet, Alaska, is listed as endangered, but other populations aren't listed.

Bottlenose Dolphin: Tursiops Truncatus

Bottlenose Dolphin
NASAs/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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

Risso's Dolphin: Grampus Griseus

Risso's dolphin
Michael L Baird/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0

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

Pygmy Sperm Whale: Kogia Breviceps

Pygmy whale washed ashore on Hutchinson Island, Florida
Inwater Research Group/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0

The pygmy sperm whale is an odontocete, or toothed whale, with teeth only on its lower jaw, like the much larger sperm whale. It's a fairly small whale with a squarish head and stocky appearance. The pygmy sperm whale reaches average lengths of 10 feet and weighs about 900 pounds.