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Whale Watching Guide

Written by Supernova

Sep 3, 2020

What whale are we watching? Many characteristics, such as the size and shape of the fluke, dorsal and pectoral fins, and colour, are used to distinguish between the different whale species. Every species of whale has differently shaped blowholes, so the shape of their spouts or blows can help us identify them. To help you identify different whales, here are some whales that are found around our coast, and their most distinguishing characteristics.

Southern right whale

(Eubalaena australi)

Interesting facts:

  • Communicate via a low-frequency sound.
  • Slow swimmers with a maximum speed of 11km/h.
  • The callosities are home to whale lice that feed off the whale’s dead skin!

Blows:

V-shaped blows

Physical features:

  • Black or dark grey. Some individuals appear mottled.
  • No dorsal fin.
  • Quite hairy around the bow-shaped jaw.
  • Recognised by the barnacles and warty growths (called callosities) behind the blow holes and on its face.

Humpback whale

(Megaptera novaeangliae)

Interesting facts:

  • Males are excellent singers, especially during winter. A series of moans, grunts and squeaks can last up to 30 minutes.
  • The females don’t sing.

Blows:

A double stream of spray that can rise up to 4m into the air.

Physical features:

  • Long, mostly white, pectoral fins with a jagged edge (the genus Megaptera means ‘large wing’).
  • Small dorsal fin situated on a sloping hump towards the tail end.
  • Patches of white on the underside of the flukes. These are unique to each whale, much like our fingerprints.

Bryde’s whale

(Balaenoptera edeni)

Interesting facts:

  • Little is known of this mysterious whale. Even though it can be found all year, it’s rarely observed.
  • It’s the only baleen whale that does not migrate to cold waters. It lives year-round in warmer waters near the equator.

Blows:

Column-like or bushy, about 4m high. Often exhale underwater.

Physical features:

  • An erect, but small, hooked dorsal fin situated towards the tail.
  • Typical broad tail flukes are rarely seen above the surface.
  • A slate grey band can be seen across the underside of the body.
  • Recognised by three parallel ridges on top of its head and an elongated body.

Sperm whale

(Physeter macrocephalus)

Interesting facts:

  • Can dive 2000m and stays underwater for over two hours!
  • Blowhole is on its left side rather than right on top of its head.

Blows:

S-shaped blowhole makes a distinctive blow that leans forward and to the left.

Physical features:

  • Dorsal fin is not noticeable, but a series of ‘bumps’ are visible along the back and towards the tail.
  • Blue-grey to light-brown wrinkly skin is distinctive.
  • Small pectoral fins that are broad and rounded.
  • Large conical teeth.
  • Identified by a large square head, and a long and narrow bottom jaw.

Orca/Killer whale

(Orcinus orca)

Interesting facts:

  • It’s a dolphin!
  • Orcas use echolocation to talk to each other and hunt.
  • Orcas are black and white for a reason; their coloring helps to camouflage them by obscuring their outline in the water.

Blows:

Small and puffy.

Physical features:

  • Head is big and somewhat cone-shaped with a rounded forehead.
  • Huge dorsal fin, which is much larger in males.
  • 10-12 large, conical teeth on each side of each jaw.
  • Glossy black bodies with distinctive, white markings.

Blue whale

(Balaenoptera musculus)

Interesting facts:

  • The largest creature on Earth and the largest animal ever to have lived on our planet.
  • Can reach almost 30m in length and weighs up to 100 tonnes!
  • Also the loudest animal on Earth! Its whale call can reach over 180 decibels, more than a jet plane.

Blows:

A single stream that rises 12-15m into the air.

Physical features:

  • This whale is huge!
  • Small, curved dorsal fin towards the tail.
  • Slender, blue-grey body with small white-grey spots.
  • Recognised by a broad and pointed head, and a ridge that runs from the tip of its head to the blowhole.
Supernova Issue 5.1 Whales

This article first appeared in Supernova Volume 5.1

Words by Antoinette Eyssell-Knox
Illustrations by Benoit Knox

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