MERR Institute, Inc. 801 Pilottown Road | Lewes, DE 19958 | (302) 228-5029 | Email

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WHALE SPECIES

While they may not be visible to the common beachgoer in our area, the Delaware coast is home to many species of whales, some of which that are considered endangered.

Short-Finned Pilot Whale
(Globicephala macrorhynchus)

Anatomy:

  • Long robust body with deep tail stock; bulbous head with prominent melon and slight beak; flippers gently curved, pointed, and less than 1/6 of the body length; upturned mouthline

  • Brownish black or dark gray in color with light markings on the throat and belly; faint saddle behind dorsal fin is common

  • Adults: 17-20ft and up to 4,000lbs;  Neonates: 5.6ft and about 130lbs

  • Dorsal fin: located far forward on back; low but prominent, broad-based; falcate to flag-like

Behavior:

  • Lobtailing, spyhopping, and mass strandings are common; breaching and bowriding are rare; dives last from 1-10 minutes, may show flukes when diving

  • Groups of 10s to 100s, may rest together like logs at the surface; often associate with bottlenose dolphins

  • Prey: squid and fish

  • May move inshore in summer and offshore in the winter to follow squid

Habitat:

  • Tropical, pelagic to coastal; Gulf Stream along continental shelf and slope

  • In western North Atlantic Ocean from Gulf of Mexico to Virginia

Status and Human Interaction

  • Minimum population estimate of about 350 in the Gulf of Mexico; 750 individuals from Florida to Cape Hatteras

  • Human Interaction: incidental catching in fishing nets and often displayed in oceanariums.

 
Long-Finned Pilot Whale
(Globicephala melas)

Anatomy:

  • Long robust body with deep tail stock; bulbous head with prominent melon and slight beak; sickle-shaped flippers are pointed and long (1/5 of body length); upturned mouthline

  • Black or dark gray in color with light markings on the throat, shoulder, and belly; faint saddle behind dorsal fin is common

  • Adults: 19-25ft and up to 4,000lbs;  Neonates: 5.5ft and about 175lbs

  • Dorsal fin: located far forward on back; low but prominent, broad-based; falcate to flag-like

Behavior:

  • Lobtailing, spyhopping, and mass strandings are common; breaching and bowriding are rare; dives last from 1-10 minutes, may show flukes when diving

  • Groups of 10s to 100s, may rest together like logs at the surface; often associate with bottlenose dolphins and Atlantic white-sided dolphins

  • Prey: squid and fish

  • May move inshore in summer and offshore in the winter to follow squid

Habitat:

  • Pelagic, continental shelf edge and slope

  • “Anti-tropical”, found in all cold-temperate waters except North Pacific, seen in western North Atlantic from Cape Hatteras to Greenland

Status and Human Interaction:

  • Estimated 8,200 individuals from Virginia to Gulf of St.Lawrence

  • Accidental capture in various pelagic fisheries due to following prey

  • Blubber shows moderate levels of contamination

 
Orca
(Orcinus Orca)

Anatomy:

  • Robust body with round head and slight beak; large paddle-like flippers

  • Black body;  white chin, belly, and oval patch behind eye; gray “saddle” behind dorsal fin

  • Adults: 23-31ft and 4-8 tons;   neonates: 8ft and 400lbs

  • Dorsal fin: prominent, mid-back; straight and tall on males (6ft); shorter and falcate on females

Behavior:

  • Active at surface and acrobatic (spyhopping, breaching, and lobtailing), fast swimmers (25+mph), dives of 4-10 minutes

  • Highly social, often travel in pods of 3-55; often cooperate in hunting and feeding efforts

  • Prey: fish, birds, squid, turtles, and other marine mammals

Habitat:

  • Tropical to polar; coastal to oceanic waters

  • Found worldwide; in U.S. Atlantic, more common sightings north of New Jersey

Status and Human Interaction:

  • Uncommon; estimated 277 individuals in the Gulf of Mexico, but abundance and status off East coast of U.S. is unknown

Sei Whale

(Balaenoptera borealis)

 
Sperm Whale
(Physeter macrocephalus)

Anatomy:

  • Huge, square head (1/3 body length) with narrow underslung lower jaw; body appears wrinkled; large triangular flukes with deep notch and smooth edges

  • Dark gray-brown in color with some lighter blotches on belly and scarring on head

  • Adults: 39-59ft and 18-68 tons;  neonates: 13ft and 1 ton

  • Dorsal fin: single, smooth, low dorsal hump with a series of bumps behind it

Behavior:

  • Swim slowly at surface for 15-60min blowing at regular intervals

  • Dive up to 12 hours and to depths of 9,800ft (deepest and longest diving cetacean); usually show flukes when diving

  • Often encountered resting like logs at the surface

  • Females and young form groups of 10-80 individuals (“breeding schools”); sexually inactive males form “bachelor schools”; oldest males are solitary except during breeding season

  • Prey: Mainly squid but some fish as well

Habitat:

  • Pelagic; deep waters near shelf edge and slope; associated with Gulf Stream features

  • Found worldwide between 60°N and S latitudes; in U.S. waters, present year round in Gulf of Mexico and from North Carolina to Georges Bank

Status and Human Interaction:

  • Endangered but fairly common offshore

  • Mass strandings fairly common

  • Incidentally caught in U.S. pelagic drift gillnets

 
Pygmy Sperm Whale
(Kogia breviceps)

Anatomy:

  • Sleek, dark body with moderately pointed rostrum curves down to tip and sides; single rostrum ridge from blowhole to snout; flippers slender and pointed; 36-55 short ventral throat grooves stop forward of naval

  • Dark gray to nearly black in color with a pale belly; lower lips are gray; light molting and patches often present

  • Adults: 59ft and 30 tons (females slightly larger);  Neonates: 15ft

  • Dorsal fin: tall erect, and strongly falcate; leading edge meets back at steep angle (2/3 back on body)

Behavior:

  • Fast swimmers that may change direction quickly

  • Found in groups of 2-5 individuals

  • May associate with humpback and fin whales on feeding grounds

  • Dive up to 30 minutes long and seldom show flukes or arch back while diving

  • Prey: copepods, euphausiids, and small crustaceans

  • May migrate to lower latitude wintering areas from Gulf of Mexico south (coming from Georges Bank in spring)

Habitat:

  • Generally pelagic (near shelf edge), but often follow prey inshore

  • Found worldwide; Gulf of Mexico to Georges Bank in U.S.

Status and Human Interaction:

  • Endangered

  • Estimated numbers in Nova Scotia stock are 1,400-2,200 individuals

  • Were harvested worldwide in 1986 for meat and oil

 
Fin Whale
(Balaenoptera physalus)

Anatomy:

  • Distinguished by its tall spout, long back, prominent dorsal fin, and asymmetrical coloration.

  • The animal's large size aids in identification, and it is usually only confused with the blue whale, the sei whale, or, in warmer waters, Bryde's whale.

  • Adults: 75-85 feet;  Neonates: 23ft and about 5,500lbs (Earth’s largest animal ever)

  • Adults can weigh between 80,000-160,000 pounds (40-80 tons).

Behavior:

  • Usually found in social groups of 2 to 7 whales;

  • They are known for being fast swimmers;

  • Little is known about their social and mating systems; long-term bonds between individuals are rare

Habitat:

  • Fin whales are found in deep, offshore waters of all major oceans, primarily in temperate to polar latitudes, and less commonly in the tropics.

  • They occur year-round in a wide range of latitudes and longitudes, but the density of individuals in any one area changes seasonally
     

Status and Human Interaction:

  • Endangered

  • Of all species of large whales, fin whales are most often reported as hit by vessels 

Minke Whale
(Balaenoptera acutostrata)

Anatomy:

  • The minke whales are the second smallest baleen whale

  • small, dark (black/gray), sleek body with white underside

  • Adults: can weigh up to 20,000 pounds, and about about 35 feet

  • Dorsal fin: small, with broad base and raised hump in the front and "knuckles" behind it. 

Behavior:

  • Often active at the surface, they are commonly seen "breaching" and "spy hopping"

  • They create sounds including "clicks" and "boings"

  • Habitat:

  • Feeds on crustaceans (like krill), plankton (like copepods), and small schooling fish (like anchovies, dogfish, capelin, coal fish, cod, eels, herring, mackerel, salmon, sand lance, saury, and wolfish).

  • Minke whales prefer temperate to boreal waters, but are also found in tropical and subtropical areas. Minke whales feed most often in cooler waters at higher latitudes.

Status and Human Interaction:

  • Protected, throughout its regions; in North Atlantic may have been reduced by as much as half due to commercial whaling practices

  • Many incidental take in fishing gear, are affected by underwater sounds and anthropogenic noise; and vessel strikes

North American Right Whale
(Eubalaena glacialis)

Anatomy:

  • A stocky body, black coloration (although some have white patches on their bellies), no dorsal fin, a large head, strongly bowed lower lip, and callosities (raised patches of roughened skin) on their head.

  • Their tail is broad, deeply notched, and all black with a smooth trailing edge.

  • Adults: up to 70 tons and about about 50 feet in length

  • Believed that right whales live at least 50 years

Behavior:

  • Unlike other baleen whales, right whales are skimmers;

  • They feed by removing prey from the water using baleen while moving with their mouth open through a patch of zooplankton.

Habitat:

  • Most known right whale nursery areas are in shallow, coastal waters.

  • Historically in all the world's oceans from temperate to subpolar latitudes. They primarily occur in coastal or shelf waters

  • North Atlantic right whales inhabit the Atlantic Ocean

Status and Human Interaction:

  • Critically Endangered, It is believed the western North Atlantic population numbers about 450 individual right whales. 

  • Face threat from ship collisions, entanglement in fishing gea; habitat degradatio, contaminant, climate and ecosystem chang, disturbance from whale-watching activitie, noise from industrial activities

  • They also face natural threats from predators, such as large sharks and killer whales, which may affect the population.

Humpback Whale
(Megaptera novaeangliae)

Anatomy:

  • The humpback has a bulky head with bumpy protuberances (tubercles), each with a bristle. 

  • Humpback whales grow to be about 52 feet long, weighing 30-50 tons 

  • Humpbacks have four different color schemes, ranging from white to gray to black to mottled.

  • There are distinctive patches of white on underside of the flukes (tail). These markings are unique to each individual whale

Behavior:

  • Humpbacks are acrobats of the ocean, breaching and slapping the water. 

  • They are seasonal feeders and carnivores that filter feed tiny crustaceans, plankton, and small fish, including herring, mackerel, capelin, and sandeel.

Habitat:

  • Humpback whales live at the surface of the ocean, both in the open ocean and shallow coastline waters.

  • When not migrating, they prefer shallow waters. They migrate from warm tropical waters where they breed and calve to arctic waters where they eat. 

Status and Human Interaction:

  • The worldwide population is at least 80,000 humpback whales, with 18,000–20,000 in the North Pacific,[68] about 12,000 in the North Atlantic.

  • In August 2008, the IUCN changed humpback's status from Vulnerable to Least Concern, although two subpopulations remain endangered

  • Individuals are vulnerable to collisions with ships, entanglement in fishing gear, and noise pollution.

  • Like other cetaceans, humpbacks can be injured by excessive noise