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- Captain Nick, Certified Naturalist
Blue whales are the largest animals ever known to have lived on Earth. These magnificent marine mammals rule the oceans at up to 100 feet long and upwards of 200 tons. Their tongues alone can weigh as much as an elephant. Their hearts, as much as an automobile.
Blue whales reach these mind-boggling dimensions on a diet composed nearly exclusively of tiny shrimplike animals called krill. During certain times of the year, a single adult blue whale consumes about 4 tons of krill a day.
Blue whales look true blue underwater, but on the surface their coloring is more a mottled blue-gray. Their underbellies take on a yellowish hue from the millions of microorganisms that take up residence in their skin. The blue whale has a broad, flat head and a long, tapered body that ends in wide, triangular flukes.
Blue whales live in all the world's oceans, except the Arctic, occasionally swimming in small groups but usually alone or in pairs. They often spend summers feeding in polar waters and undertake lengthy migrations towards the Equator as winter arrives.
Source: National Geographic
Fin whales are the second-largest species of whale. They are found throughout the world’s oceans and gets their name from an easy-to-spot fin on its back, near its tail.
A fin whale has a sleek, streamlined body with a V-shaped head. It has a tall, hooked dorsal fin, about two-thirds of the way back on the body, that rises at a shallow angle from the back. Fin whales have distinctive coloration: black or dark brownish-gray on the back and sides, white on the underside. Head coloring is asymmetrical—dark on the left side of the lower jaw, white on the right-side lower jaw, and the other way around on the tongue. Many fin whales have several light-gray, V-shaped “chevrons” behind their heads; on many of them, the underside of the tail flukes is white with a gray border. These markings are unique and can be used to identify Individual fin whales.
Fin whales are fast swimmers who are often found in social groups of two to seven. In the North Atlantic, they are often seen feeding in large groups that include humpback whales, minke whales, and Atlantic white-sided dolphins.
During the summer, fin whales feed on krill, small schooling fish (including herring, capelin, and sand lance), and squid by lunging into schools of prey with their mouth open, using their 50 to 100 accordion-like throat pleats to gulp large amounts of food and water. Fin whales fast in the winter while they migrate to warmer waters.
Like other baleen whales, fin whales also skim the water, taking in huge volumes of water. When they close their mouths, the water is pushed out through the baleen and the prey is caught on the inside of the baleen. A fin whale eats up to 2 tons of food every day this way.
Fin whales are found in deep, offshore waters of all major oceans, primarily in temperate to polar latitudes. They are less common in the tropics. They occur year-round in a wide range of locations, but the density of individuals in any one area changes seasonally. Most migrate from the Arctic and Antarctic feeding areas in the summer to tropical breeding and calving areas in the winter. The location of winter breeding grounds is not known. Fin whales travel in the open seas, away from the coast, so they are difficult to track.
Humpback whales are found in every ocean in the world. Their Latin name, Megaptera novaeangliae, means "big wing of New England." It refers to their giant pectoral fins, which can grow up to 16 feet long, and their appearance off the coast of New England, where European whalers first encountered them. They have dark backs, light bellies, pleats on their throats, and a small hump in front of their dorsal fin, leading to the common name of "humpback."
Humpback whales are known for their magical songs, which travel for great distances through the world's oceans. These sequences of moans, howls, cries, and other noises are quite complex and often continue for hours on end. Scientists are studying these sounds to decipher their meaning. It is most likely that humpbacks sing to communicate with others and to attract potential mates. Humpback calves are known to whisper to their mothers.
“These baleen whales are found near coastlines, feeding on tiny shrimp-like krill, plankton, and small fish. Humpbacks migrate annually from summer feeding grounds near the poles to warmer winter breeding waters closer to the Equator. Mothers and their young swim close together, often touching one another with their flippers with what appear to be gestures of affection. Females nurse their calves for almost a year, though it takes far longer than that for a humpback whale to reach full adulthood. Calves do not stop growing until they are ten years old.
Humpbacks are powerful swimmers, and they use their massive tail fin, called a fluke, to propel themselves through the water and sometimes completely out of it. These whales, like others, regularly leap from the water, landing with a tremendous splash. Scientists are not sure if this breaching behavior serves some purpose, such as cleaning pests from the whale's skin, or whether whales simply do it for fun. A favorite of whale watchers, they also slap the water with their flukes and pectoral fins, rise nose-first out of the water (called "spyhopping"), and do penducle throws, a behavior unique to this species in which they raise their entire rear torso and tail out of the water, twist, and slam their lower half down onto the ocean surface. Rarer displays include flapping their fins like wings and occasionally gathering in "super groups" of as many as 200, though scientists don't know why.
Source: National Geographic
Gray whales are often covered with parasites and other organisms that make their snouts and backs look like a crusty ocean rock.
The whale uses its snout to forage by dislodging tiny creatures from the seafloor. It then filters these morsels with its baleen—a comb like strainer of plates in the upper jaw. A piece of gray whale baleen, also called whalebone, is about 18 inches long and has a consistency much like a fingernail. Whalebone was once used to make ladies' corsets and umbrella ribs.
The gray whale is one of the animal kingdom's great migrators. Traveling in groups called pods, some of these giants swim 12,430 miles round-trip from their summer home in Alaskan waters to the warmer waters off the Mexican coast. The whales winter and breed in the shallow southern waters and balmier climate. Other gray whales live in the seas near Korea.
Like all whales, gray whales surface to breathe, so migrating groups are often spotted from North America's west coast.
Source: National Geographic
Minke whales are members of the baleen whale family and are the smallest of the "great whales" or rorquals. They are the most abundant rorqual in the world, and their population status is considered stable throughout almost their entire range (especially when compared to other species of large whales).
The scientific names for Minke whales translate to: "winged whale," (Balaenoptera) "sharp snout" (acutorostrata). They received their common name from a Norwegian novice whaling spotter named Meincke, who supposedly mistook a Minke whale for a blue whale.
The Minke whale is the smallest baleen whale in North American waters. These rorquals have a relatively small, dark, sleek body that can reach lengths of up to about 35 feet and weigh up to 20,000 pounds. Females may be slightly larger than males. Minke whales have a fairly tall, sickle-shaped dorsal fin located about two-thirds down their back. Their body is black to dark grayish/brownish, with a pale chevron on the back behind the head and above the flippers, as well as a white underside. Calves are usually darker in coloration than adults. Minke whales vary in body size, patterns, coloration, and baleen (long, flat keratin plates that hang from the whale’s mouth in place of teeth) based on geographical location.
Minke whales are usually sighted individually or in small groups of two to three, but loose groupings of up to 400 animals have been seen in feeding areas closer to the poles.
Minke whales feed by side-lunging into schools of prey and gulping large amounts of water. Minke whales opportunistically feed on crustaceans, plankton, and small schooling fish (e.g., anchovies, dogfish, capelin, coal fish, cod, eels, herring, mackerel, salmon, sand lance, saury, and wolfish). In the Southern Hemisphere, krill constitutes most of the diet for the Antarctic species, while the dwarf Minke whale subspecies feeds on a combination of krill and myctophid fish.
Minke whales are known to vocalize and create sounds that include clicks, grunts, pulse trains, ratchets, thumps, and recently discovered "boings."
Minke whales are often recognized in the field by surfacing snout-first, with a small and weak—but visible—bushy blow that is about 6.5 to 10 feet high. Unlike other rorqual species, they do not raise their flukes out of the water when they are diving. When surfacing, they have a quick fluid movement, which creates spray (sometimes described as a "roostertail") when traveling at high speeds. Before deep dives, they may arch and expose much of their back and body in a high roll above the surface. These whales can dive for at least 15 minutes but regularly submerge for 6 to 12 minutes at a time.
Minke whales prefer temperate to boreal waters but are also found in tropical and subtropical areas. They feed most often in cooler waters at higher latitudes and can be found in both coastal/inshore and oceanic/offshore areas. Their distribution is considered cosmopolitan because they can occur in polar, temperate, and tropical waters in most seas and areas worldwide. Minke whales, like some other species of cetaceans, migrate seasonally and can travel long distances.
Orcas, or killer whales, are the largest of the dolphins and one of the world's most powerful predators. They are immediately recognizable by their distinctive black-and-white coloring. Smart and social, Orcas make a wide variety of communicative sounds, and each pod has distinctive noises that its members will recognize even at a distance. They use echolocation to communicate and hunt, making sounds that travel underwater until they encounter objects, then bounce back, revealing their location, size, and shape.
Though they often frequent cold, coastal waters, Orcas can be found from the polar regions to the Equator. They're at the top of the food chain and have very diverse diets, feasting on fish, penguins, and marine mammals such as seals, sea lions, and even whales, employing teeth that can be four inches long. They are known to grab seals right off the ice. They also eat fish, squid, and seabirds.
Orcas hunt in deadly pods, family groups of up to 40 individuals. There appear to be both resident and transient pod populations of Orcas. These different groups may prey on different animals and use different techniques to catch them. Resident pods tend to prefer fish, while transient pods target marine mammals. All pods use effective, cooperative hunting techniques that some liken to the behavior of wolf packs.
Orcas are protective of their young, and other adolescent females often assist the mother in caring for them. Mothers give birth every three to ten years, after a 17-month pregnancy. They give birth to one baby at a time, which may nurse for up to two years. In most cases, the bond between juvenile and mother will eventually weaken, and the young Orca will go its own way, but in some pods, the juvenile may stay with the pod it was born into its entire life.
Orcas are highly intelligent, social mammals that have long been a part of marine park entertainment, performing shows for audiences. However, it is become increasingly clear that Orcas do not thrive in captivity.
They have evolved to swim up to 40 miles a day, foraging for food and exercising. They dive 100 to 500 feet, several times a day, every day. Whether they are born in the wild or in captivity, all Orcas born have the same innate drive to swim far and dive deep. Artificial enclosures in captivity cannon offer that kind of range to Orcas, contributing to boredom and stress. Orcas have been seen to develop stereotypes, also known as zoochosis—repetitive patterns of activity that have no obvious function, which range from self-mutilation to rocking and swaying. Usually related to stress and inappropriate habitats, stereotypical behavior has been documented in Orcas in scientific research since the late 1980s.
In the wild, Orcas live in tight-knit family groups that share a sophisticated, unique culture that is passed down through generations, research has shown. In captivity, Orcas are kept in artificial social groups. Captive-born Orcas are often transferred between facilities, breaking up social relationships. The stress of social disruption is compounded by the fact that Orcas in captivity do not have the ability to escape conflict with other Orcas, or to engage in natural swimming behaviors in pools.
Source: National Geographic
Common Dolphins are very social, and they live in large groups called pods. The number in a pod can be several hundred or it can be in the thousands. The largest ones number over 10,000. They have a very complex hierarchy that keeps them orderly and they tend to create subgroups based on age and other factors. This dolphin species has been seen taking part in a variety of different behaviors. They include somersaults, pitch poling, breaching, and bow riding. They are very active and playful, and they seem to be able to move through the water almost effortlessly.
Touch and echolocation are big parts of their social interactions with each other. They seem to thrive on the connections they have with each other. Vocalizations including whistling, whining, and clicking are very common. The dialogue though can be different based on the pod and that is a very interesting element of their overall behaviors.
The Common Dolphin can weigh up to 500 pounds and they can be up to 9 feet long. They have a very bright color to them which is very interesting. They often have patterns on them with dark gray that capes over them in a V shape under the dorsal fin on both sides of the body. Their flank is a tan or yellow color. The males are going to be a bit larger than the females. They have a dorsal fin that is in the middle of the back.
Most of the diet for the Common Dolphin comes from schools of fish. Some of these dolphins are quite picky when it comes to which ones they will eat. They will resort to other types of fish though when those they enjoy the most are hard to come by. They will also consume squid and other cephalopods.
Feeding usually occurs at night and then they will be resting during the day. They have up to 57 pairs of teeth on both the upper and lower jaws that they can use to help them hold the prey, but they do not chew their food. What they do consume has to be small enough for them to swallow. They can consume about 5% of their body weight daily.
These dolphins live in bodies of water that have a warm temperature. The Long – Beaked Common Dolphin is found close to the shallow waters. The Short – Beaked Common Dolphin though tends to be in deeper waters up to 590 feet.
These dolphins do not migrate like so many other species do. However, they will move around if necessary, to find food and when there are unusually cold waters. They often do return to their home range though as soon as possible.
Bottlenose dolphins are well known as the intelligent and charismatic stars of many aquarium shows. Their curved mouths give the appearance of a friendly, permanent smile, and they can be trained to perform complex tricks.
In the wild, these sleek swimmers can reach speeds of over 18 miles an hour. They surface often to breathe, doing so two or three times a minute. Bottlenose dolphins travel in social groups and communicate with each other by a complex system of squeaks and whistles. Schools have been known to come to the aid of an injured dolphin and help it to the surface.
Bottlenose dolphins typically weigh about 1,100 pounds and they average a length of 10 – 14’. They also live approximately 45 to 50 years of age.
Bottlenose dolphins track their prey through the expert use of echolocation. They can make up to 1,000 clicking noises per second. These sounds travel underwater until they encounter objects, then bounce back to their dolphin senders, revealing the location, size, and shape of their target.
When dolphins are feeding, that target is often a bottom-dwelling fish, though they also eat shrimp and squid. These clever animals are also sometimes spotted following fishing boats in hopes of dining on leftovers.
Bottlenose dolphins are found in tropical oceans and other warm waters around the globe.
Source: National Geographic
Risso's dolphins, sometimes called gray dolphins, are found in the temperate and tropical zones of all the world’s oceans. These cetaceans generally prefer deeper offshore waters, especially near the continental shelf edge and slope, where they can dive to at least 1,000 feet and hold their breath for 30 minutes. They are also very active on the ocean surface.
Risso's dolphins are typically found in groups of between 10 and 30 animals, though they have been reported as solitary individuals, in pairs, or in loose aggregations in the hundreds or thousands. Occasionally, this species associates with other dolphins and whales.
They have a robust body with a narrow tailstock. These medium-sized cetaceans can reach lengths of approximately 8.5 to 13 feet and weigh 660 to 1,100 pounds. Males and females are usually about the same size. They have a bulbous head with a vertical crease and an indistinguishable beak. They have a tall, curved, sickle-shaped dorsal fin located mid-way down their back. They have two to seven pairs of peg-like teeth in the front of their lower jaw to capture prey and usually none in their upper jaw. This low number of teeth is unusual when compared with other cetaceans.
Risso's dolphins are typically found in groups that average between 10 and 30 animals, but they have been reported as solitary individuals, in pairs, or in loose aggregations of hundreds and thousands. When at the surface, they have a small inconspicuous blow if backlit (which is more distinct after long dives), and their head partially emerges at a 45° angle. Before diving, they usually take 10 to 12 breaths at 15- to 20-second intervals and will often display their tails (known as flukes). Risso’s dolphins are very active on the surface, often leaping out of the water, slapping their flippers or tails on the water surface, and raising their heads vertically out of the water. They occasionally porpoise—or move in and out of the water in a series of high-speed leaps—most often when being pursued or hunted by predators.
Risso's dolphins can dive to at least 1,000 feet and hold their breath for 30 minutes, but they usually make shorter dives of just a few minutes. They feed on fish (e.g., anchovies), krill, and cephalopods (e.g., squid, octopus, and cuttlefish) mainly at night, when their prey is closer to the surface. Most of their diet consists of squid, and they have been known to move into continental shelf waters when following their preferred prey.
Risso's dolphins have a cosmopolitan distribution, meaning they can be found worldwide in temperate, subtropical, and tropical oceans and seas from latitudes 64° north to 46° south. They prefer deeper waters (3,300 feet) with steep bottom topography, but they are known to inhabit shallower coastal areas.
In the Northern Hemisphere, their range includes the Gulf of Alaska, Gulf of Mexico, Newfoundland, Azores, Norway, Japan, Russia, and Red Sea.
Little or nothing is known of their migration patterns or movements, but Risso’s dolphins may be affected by movements of spawning squid and oceanographic conditions.
Pacific White Sided Dolphins, known for the distinct coloring that give them their name, are a playful and highly social marine mammal. They are also sometimes known as the “hookfin porpoise” because of their large, curved dorsal fin, though they are not technically porpoises.
In the United States, Pacific white-sided dolphins live off the coasts of California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. They can be seen travelling in schools of thousands, but group sizes are usually between 10 and 100 animals. These extremely playful dolphins are often seen “bow riding” (swimming near the front part of a ship) and jumping, somersaulting, or even spinning in the air.
These dolphins have a robust body, short rostrum (snout), and large dorsal fin compared to their overall body size. Their back, fluke (tail), and lips are black; their sides, dorsal fin, and flippers are gray; and their belly is white. They have a white or light gray stripe along their sides that extends from the eye to the tail, sometimes referred to as "suspenders." Pacific white-sided dolphins are most likely to be confused with common dolphins and Dall’s porpoises because they have similar large light-colored flank patches.
The average adult Pacific white-sided dolphin weighs about 300 to 400 pounds and is between 5.5 and 8 feet long, with males being generally larger than females.
Pacific white-sided dolphins feed on a variety of prey, such as squid and small schooling fish (capelin, sardines, and herring). They can dive underwater for more than 6 minutes to feed. They have small conical teeth that help them catch and hold on to their prey; each tooth row contains 23 to 36 pairs of teeth. Instead of using their teeth to chew their food, dolphins use their teeth to grip food before swallowing it whole—headfirst—so the spines of the fish do not catch in their throats. Pacific white-sided dolphins often work together as a group to herd schools of fish. Each adult eats about 20 pounds of food a day.
Pacific white-sided dolphins are pelagic, meaning they live in the open ocean and nearshore waters, but are unlikely to be found close to shore. They live in the temperate waters of the North Pacific Ocean.
The cliché circus "seal"—obligingly balancing a ball on its nose and jumping through hoops—is typically a California Sea Lion.
But in the wild, the California Sea Lion is a sleek animal, faster than any other sea lion or seal. These eared seals top out at speeds of some 25 miles an hour. Unlike other sea lions, California sea lions do not have lion-like manes.
These pinnipeds live along the rocky Pacific Ocean coastlines of western North America. Huge colonies can be seen gathered on seaside rocks, and even on man-made structures, for breeding and for birthing. Males gather harems of females to their sides in competition to sire young pups, which are born on land.
The sea lion's ancient ancestors, like those of whales and dolphins, lived on land. The modern animal is well adapted to an aquatic environment, with its streamlined body and powerful flippers. (The rear flippers rotate forward to allow a California sea lion to move surprisingly well on land.) California sea lions also boast thick layers of blubber to insulate their bodies from the chill of marine waters.
When diving deep, California sea lions slow their heart rates to allow them to remain underwater for nearly ten minutes before surfacing to breathe. This ability gives them an edge in the pursuit of the fish, squid, and shellfish that make up their primary diet.
Source: National Geographic
Harbor Seals are one of the most common marine mammals along the U.S. West and East Coasts. They are commonly seen resting on rocks and beaches along the coast and on floating ice in glacial fjords with their head and rear flippers elevated in a “banana-like” position.
Harbor Seals are part of the true seal family. All true seals have short forelimbs, or flippers. They also lack external ear flaps and instead have a small hole (opening to the ear canal) on either side of their head.
Harbor Seals weigh up to 285 pounds and measure up to 6 feet in length. Males are slightly larger than females, and seals in Alaska and the Pacific Ocean are generally larger than those found in the Atlantic Ocean.
Harbor Seals have short, dog-like snouts. The color of each seal’s fur varies but there are two basic patterns: light tan, silver, or blue-gray with dark speckling or spots, or a dark background with light rings.
Harbor Seals haul out (rest) on rocks, reefs, beaches, and drifting glacial ice at night and during the day. They haul out to regulate their body temperature, molt, interact with other seals, give birth, and raise their pups. They also haul out in groups to avoid predators and spend less time being watchful for predators than those that haul out alone.
Harbor Seal pelvic bones are fused, preventing them from moving their hind flippers under their pelvis to walk on land. Instead, they move by undulating in a caterpillar-like motion. This does not mean they are injured.
Harbor Seal pups can swim at birth. They can also dive for up to 2 minutes when they are only 2 to 3 days old. Mother harbor seals raise their pups in nurseries—groups of mothers and their young—that help protect the seals from predators.
The Harbor Seal’s diet consists mainly of fish, shellfish, and crustaceans. Harbor Seals complete both shallow and deep dives while hunting depending on the availability of prey. They can sleep underwater and come up for air once every 30 minutes.
Harbor Seals live in temperate coastal habitats along the northern coasts of North America, Europe, and Asia. They occur on the U.S East and West coasts. On the East Coast, harbor seals are found from the Canadian Arctic to New York and occasionally as far south as the Carolinas. Harbor seals are found all along the West Coast of North America, from California to the Bering Sea. They have long been considered non-migratory and typically stay within 15 to 31 miles of home, but telemetry data have shown they sometimes travel 62 to 249 miles from their tagging location.