Whale Identification: How To Identify At Sea

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Whale watching is an incredible tourist attraction in all parts of the world. Millions a year flock to marvel at the magnificent sight of these marine giants in their natural habitat. If you’re planning a whale watching excursion in the near future, you may be wondering what you can expect to see while out on your deep blue adventure.

While on your whale watching trip, expect your tour captain to be very knowledgeable of any and everything you might see on the water. But just in case, below are some tips to help you identify whales at sea based on whales’ dorsal fins, whale spout blows and sprays, tail flukes, and other common behaviors.

Whale Identification #1: Dorsal Fins

One way to identify whales at sea is by their dorsal fins (or lack thereof). If a whale has a dorsal fin, it sits on the top of the back. It can typically be seen breaching the water when whales near the ocean surface. Below are a few common types of dorsal fins to help identify its whale owner.

  • Tall and Pointy – this dorsal fin is very distinctive to the orca whale, also referred to as the killer whale.

  • Small Nub – if you spot a very low dorsal that sits like a nub on a back, this is indicative of the humpback whale.

  • Small, Curved Back – a small curved back dorsal fin that sits on a broad back could indicate the presence of a minke whale, fin whale, or sometimes even a blue whale.

  • No Dorsal Fin – one distinctive trait of the grey whale is that it has no dorsal fin at all. Some sperm whales are also similar in that their dorsal fin nub is so low, it almost appears non-existent.

Whale Identification #2: Spout Blows

Another important whale identifier are whale spout blows and sprays. A spout spray occurs when whales breach the surface for air and exhale through their blowhole. During this exhale, the shape and size of the spray can be used to determine and identify the particular whale species. Spout blows can be particularly helpful for identifying certain whales from a distance and help guide boat captains closer to their location. Below are some common blows to look for:

  • Mushroom Blow – A mushroom-shaped or heart-shaped blow is very distinctive of the grey whale. This blow will appear more bulbous at the top of the spray, and below look more like a narrow pillar.

  • Low, Bulbous Blow – A bushy blow that stays rounded on the surface of the ocean is common for the orca whale and minke whale. When a similar blow occurs that’s also angled sideways, this is likely a sperm whale.

  • Very Tall Blow – A tall blow in the shape of a large column or pillar is characteristic of the humpback whale, fin whale, and occasionally the blue whale.

Whale Identification #3: Whale Behaviors

Some whales have personalities that manifest in different behaviors depending on their species. Below are some common whale behaviors that can help identify the whale species at sea.

Breaching – breaching is the act of propelling upward and out of the ocean, causing whales to land on their bellies or backs as they fall back into the water. Two whale species that love to breach are the humpback whale and the orca whale (killer whale). When these species breach, it creates a massive splash that can be seen and heard from a great distance. The humpback and orca whales are some of the most playful and entertaining species to witness on a whale watching trip! They can certainly put on a great show for whale watchers.

Fluking – fluking occurs when whales take a descend into the ocean while they are at the surface, causing them to expose their fluke (or tail) as they dive back down. Although fluking doesn’t always occur when whales dive back in the ocean, there are a few species that do it more often than others. Species that fluke more often than others include the humpback whale, blue whale, grey whale, and orca whale.

Tail Slaps – tail and pectoral slaps are exactly what they sound like. Tail slaps occur when whales lift their pectoral fins out of the water and smack them against the ocean’s surface. Two common executors of this behavior trait are the humpback whale and orca whale (similar to breaching!).

Porpoising – porpoising is the act of jumping out of the water while it is moving forward, a trait that is very common for many dolphins. One whale species that can be seem porpoising from time to time is the orca whale, which biologically speaking is also considered a dolphin as well.

When you take a whale watching trip with Harbor Breeze, our knowledgeable captains and on-board naturalists will walk you through all the wonders you may see on the deep blue from whales to dolphins, sea lions, turtles, marine birds, and so much other marine life. Contact us today for booking information!

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