Whales are known for being gentle giants of the seas, even though that’s not always the case. They occur in every ocean on earth and are highly variable in size. There are 91 species of whales which can be divided into two main groups, with the largest being toothed whales. In this article, we will be going over 15 of the most common types of whales and learning a bit about each of them.
First though, let’s learn a bit about whales and the two main types of whales.
What are whales?
Whales are marine mammals, meaning that they share characteristics with other mammals such as being warm blooded (also known as being endothermic), giving live birth, and having mammary glands to feed their young. They are entirely aquatic, meaning they eat, sleep, and live in the water.
Whales are characterized by their torpedo shaped bodies, relatively small fins (also known as flippers) and very large tail fins. Whales are in the taxonomic infraorder Cetacea, making them cetaceans. Other types of cetaceans include dolphins and porpoises and they are all well known for their intelligence.
15 Types of whales
The 91 species mentioned above can be broken up into two main groups: the toothed whales and the baleen whales. Baleen whales have baleen as the name would suggest, which are essentially specialized keratin bristles that act as a sieve. there are 14 known species of baleen whales.
Baleen whales are filter feeders that bring in large amounts of water into their mouth and then force it out, trapping little organisms like krill and plankton in their baleen. Toothed whales, on the other hand, are equipped with cone shaped teeth that they use to capture and eat their prey.
There are 77 species of toothed whales, far more than baleen whales as it includes dolphins and porpoises. Toothed whales come in all sizes! For the purposes of this article we will only be covering the “true whales”, as in whales that are not considered porpoises or dolphins.
1. Blue whale
Scientific name: Balaenoptera musculus
The Blue whale, arguably one of the most well known marine mammals and animals on the planet. Blue whales are the largest mammals on earth, growing to up to almost 100 feet long and nearly 200 tons.
They are a species of baleen whale and their diet consists of almost entirely krill. Blue whales can be found in oceans world wide but tend to migrate seasonally.
2. Humpback whale
Scientific name: Megaptera novaeangliae
The Humpback whale is another large species of baleen whale, however they don’t grow nearly as large as their relative the Blue whale. Humpback whales can grow up to about 60 feet long. They are known to breach often and display other interesting behaviors near the surface and are commonly spotted on whale watching trips.
3. Gray whale
Scientific name: Eschrichtius robustus
Gray whales, another species of large baleen whale, have a very limited distribution. This species is only found in the coastal North Pacific ocean.
They were once found in the North Atlantic ocean as well but were since wiped out by the whaling industry. They grow to about 50 feet long and are thought to be very close relatives to the Humpback whale.
4. Sperm whale
Scientific name: Physeter macrocephalus
The Sperm whale is a species of toothed whale. In fact, it is the largest of the toothed whales and is actually the largest toothed predator in the world, growing to over 50 feet long.
Sperm whales look quite a bit different from their other relatives, known for their large and broad heads which equate to about ⅓ of their body. They get their name from the presence of a spermaceti organ, an organ that sits within their skull and produces a waxy, fatty substance that was once highly sought after in the whaling industry.
Scientific name: Monodon monoceros
While they may look like some sort of made up animal, the Narwhal is a species of toothed whale that is found in the Arctic waters around Canada, Greenland and Russia. They are well known for their large tusk looking horn that protrudes from their head.
This tusk is actually a specialized tooth. Typically, only males have this tusk but occasionally females are also found with them. The function of the tusk is actually to be used as a sensory organ that helps them to learn about their environment and stimuli around them.
6. North Atlantic right whale
Scientific name: Eubalaena glacialis
The North Atlantic right whale is a species of baleen whale. As the name would suggest, they are found in the northern Atlantic ocean. They are one of three right whale species and are sadly considered critically endangered by the IUCN redlist. They are threatened by vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing equipment.
7. Common minke whale
Scientific name: Balaenoptera acutorostrata
Common minke whales are one of the smallest species of baleen whale second to the pygmy right whale. Common minke whales are found in oceans all throughout the world, but interestingly enough, common minke whales in the southern hemisphere are thought to be dwarf forms and grow to be smaller than their northern counterparts.
8. Beluga whale
Scientific name: Delphinapterus leucas
The Beluga whale, also known as the white whale, is a type of toothed whale that is found in the chilly waters of the Arctic ocean. They are known for the high pitched calls that they use to communicate with each other.
Belugas are highly social animals and tend to travel in pods of up to 10 animals but have been known in the summer months to travel with up to several hundred other individuals in shallow waters.
9. Cuvier’s beaked whale
Scientific name: Ziphius cavirostris
The Cuvier’s beaked whale is the most well studied of the beaked whales, a somewhat mysterious family of toothed whales. Beaked whales are pelagic, meaning they inhabit the open and deep waters of the ocean.
Cuvier’s beaked whales spend most of their time about 1,000 feet under the surface. The longest and deepest dive ever recorded from a whale came from this species where one individual dove down to nearly 10,000 feet and stayed under for nearly four hours!
10. Bowhead whale
Scientific name: Balaena mysticetus
Bowhead whales are a species of baleen whale. They get their name for their unique skull, which is almost triangle shaped. Bowhead whale use their skull to break through thick, arctic ice as they are found in the Arctic ocean.
They are well adapted for the chilly waters with their ice breaking skull and thick blubber. In fact, Bowhead whales have the thickest blubber of any animal which can be as thick as 19 inches.
11. Fin whale
Scientific name: Balaenoptera physalus
The Fin whale is a large species of baleen whale which can grow nearly as long as the blue whale. Fin whales can reportedly reach lengths of about 85 feet!
However, their body plan is much more narrow than the blue whales which has earned them the title of “greyhound of the sea”. They are known to swim very fast and can be found in oceans all over the world aside from near the poles.
12. Bryde’s whale
Scientific name: Balaenoptera brydei
The Bryde’s whale is another species of Baleen whale that can be found in warmer and temperate waters virtually worldwide. As far as baleen whales go, they are relatively small and grow between 40 and 50 feet long. While many other baleen whales tend to have a diet that consists of mostly small crustaceans, Bryde’s whales have a diet that includes more small fish like anchovies and sardines.
13. Omura’s whale
Scientific name: Balaenoptera omurai
Omura’s whale is a lesser known species of baleen whale that was not actually officially described until 2003. They are thought to be very closely related to Blue whales. They are found in disjointed parts of the Pacific and Atlantic ocean. Very few individuals have been observed in the wild, meaning that there is very little information about their ecology and biology.
14. Rice’s whale
Scientific name: Balaenoptera ricei
The Rice’s whale is another species of baleen whale with very little ecological information available. They are known to have a very restricted distribution and are only found in a very small part of the Gulf of Mexico. They are also known as the Gulf of Mexico whale. Sadly, this species is threatened by extinction and is critically endangered.
15. Pygmy sperm whale
Scientific name: Kogia breviceps
The Pygmy sperm whale is a species of toothed whale. As the name would imply, they are smaller than most whales, growing to about 11 feet. Like their relatives, they also have a spermaceti organ that produces a waxy substance. They are rarely seen alive and most biological information comes from specimens that have been found stranded.