Balaenopteridae: Rorqual Family

There are 6 species of rorqual whale. All except the humpback whale are similar in appearance, but they differ in size and color. Most have about 320 baleen and there are a large number of grooves on the throat.

Sei Whale

The sei whale is streamlined and flat-headed and can achieve speeds of 26 mph (42 km/h). It eats almost any kind of plankton, as well as fish and squid, usually feeding near the surface. Family groups of 5 or 6 whales occur and pair bonds are strong and may last for years. The gestation period is 12 months, and the calf is fed by its mother for 6 months.

Range: All oceans (not polar regions).

Habitat: Open ocean.

Size: 49 - 65 1/2 ft (15 - 20 m).

Ziphiidae: Beaked Whale Family

There are 18 species of beaked whale, found in all oceans. Most are medium-sized whales with slender bodies and long narrow snouts, some species have bulging, rounded foreheads. A particular characteristic of the family is the pair of grooves on the throat. Although Shepherd’s beaked whale has more than 50 teeth, all other beaked whales have only one or two pairs, and the arrangement and shape of these are a useful means of defining identification.

They feed largely on squid. They are deep divers and are believed to remain submerged for longer periods than any other marine mammals. They generally move in small groups, but adult males are often solitary.

Although the second-largest family of whales (the dolphin family is the largest with 32 species), they are a little-known group. Some species are known to exist only from a few skulls and bones. The 12 species in the genus Mesoplodon are particularly unresearched but interesting. The shape and length of these differ from species to species, culminating in M. Iayardi, in which the backward-pointing teeth grow upward out of the mouth like tusks.

Cuvier's Beaked Whale

It has the typical tapering body of its family and a distinct beak. Adult males are easily distinguished by the two teeth. In females, however, these teeth remain embedded in the gums. The colouring of this species is highly variable - Indo-Pacific whales are generally various shades of brown, many individuals have darker backs or almost white heads, while in the Atlantic, Cuvier’s whales tend to be a gray or gray-blue colour. All races of beaked whales, however, are marked with scars and with discolored oval patches that are caused by the feeding action of parasitic lampreys.

Squid and deep-water fish are the main food of Cuvier’s whales, and they make deep dives, lasting up to 30 minutes, in order to find their prey.

There is no definite breeding season, and calves are born at any time of the year. Groups of up to 15 individuals live and travel together.

Range: All oceans, temperate and tropical areas.

Habitat: Deep waters

Size: 21 - 23 ft (6.4 - 7 m).

Shepherd's Beaked Whale

Zealand, but in the 1970s identical specimens were found off Argentina and Chile. This species is unique in its family for its tooth pattern. Shepherd’s beaked whale has a pair of large teeth at the tip of its lower jaw, with 12 or more pairs behind them, and about 10 pairs in the upper jaw. It resembles the rest of the family in habits and appearance. Squid and fish are believed to be its main food.

Range: New Zealand seas; off coasts of Argentina and Chile.

Habitat: Coasts, open ocean.

Size: 18 - 25 ft (5.5 - 7.5 m).

Southern Bottlenose Whale

This species is one of the beaked whales -toothed whales that are like dolphins and pilot whales in many ways, except that they are larger. Bottlenosed whales, as their name suggests, resemble bottlenosed dolphins. Most beaked whales have a bulbous forehead, but bottlenoses have a flatter head, like oceanic dolphins. However, in common with almost all other whales, this species has only two obvious teeth. These are tusk-like, and in old males they stick out at the front of the mouth. The teeth are used in fights, and older whales bear numerous long scars along their backs caused by bites. The southern bottlenose whale lives in the cold waters. It is often found around Cape Horn and the Falkland Islands. This species feeds on squid and fish.

They move in small groups and feed on squid and fish. They dive to 1 km (3,300 ft). They locate food in the dark water by echolocation and also communicate with sound.

Size: 6.5 - 8 m (21 - 26 ft); 5.8 - 7.9 tonnes (12,787 - 17,416 lb).

Pygmy Beaked Whale

Although a member of the beaked whale family, this cetacean is only a little larger than its dolphin cousins. It is a very rare species and is only found in the warm waters off northern Peru. Pygmy beaked whales are deep-sea hunters that feed on squid and fish. This is one of the latest mammal species to be described. It was only discovered in 1991, and is thought to be the smallest beaked whale. No live member of this species has ever been formally identified, and everything we know about it comes from studying dead specimens.

Size: 3.4 m (1 1ft).

False killer Whale

Like its namesake the killer whale, the false killer whale is actually a member of the dolphin family. This is a wide-ranging species, which travels throughout the world's oceans. The false killer is able to reach speeds of up to 30 knots (30 nautical mph or 55kph) and is often encountered racing ships. It preys on smaller dolphins.

Size: 3.7 - 5.5 m (12.25 - 18 ft); 1.2 - 2 tonnes (2,650 - 4,400 lb).

Sperm Whale

This is the largest of the toothed whales - as distinct from those that filter their food with baleen plates - and has a very characteristic profile.

They can dive to incredible depths to hunt, occasionally journeying up to 2.5km (1.6 miles) beneath the surface, and can stay submerged for up to two hours. It is thought that this allows them to prey on giant squid, which live in the ocean abyss. In fact, scars caused by the suckers of the squid were reported on the sides of sperm whales before the existence of these cephalopods was confirmed, providing evidence of the titanic battles that must occur between them. They are social animals, and they live in groups of between 20 and 40 females, juveniles and young.

The box-like head of the sperm whale contains the spermaceti organ, which is filled with the fine oil so valued by whalers. The purpose of this organ is unclear: it may function as a lens, focusing the sounds that the whale uses to detect its prey, or it may help the whale to control its buoyancy during dives.

Distribution: Ranges throughout oceans and seas worldwide.

Habitat: Temperate and tropical waters.

Size: 12 - 20 m (40 - 65 ft); 12 - 70 tonnes (26,500 - 155,000 lb).

Maturity: Females 8 - 11 years; males around 10 years.

Breeding: 1; weaning takes about 2 years.

Diet: Cephalopods, notably giant squid and octopus.

Lifespan: Can be 75 years.


There is no dorsal fin, but a series of undulating humps running down the middle of the back.


Teeth are only present in the lower jaw.


The head is square and blunt-ending, accounting for up to a third of the body length.


These are broad and triangular in shape, and are lifted out of the water just before a dive.


This is located to the left and close to the front of the head in a sperm whale, compared with other whales. The blow itself is directed forwards, enabling these they to be recognized from a distance.

Humpback Whale

In the southern hemisphere, humpbacks feed on planktonic crustaceans, but in the northern hemisphere they eat small fish. Populations in both hemispheres feed in polar regions in summer and then migrate to tropical breeding areas for the winter. The gestation period is 11 or 12 months, and a mother feeds her calf for almost a year.

Humpbacks perform the most extraordinary, complex songs of any animal. The songs may be repeated for hours on end and are specific to populations and areas. They may change from year to year. The songs probably attract receptive females that are not caring for calves that year.

Distribution: All oceans.

Habitat: Oceanic, coastal waters.

Food: Small fish, shrimps and krill.

Size: 12.5 - 15 m (41 - 49.25 ft); 30 tonnes (66,000 lb).

Maturity: 4 - 5 years.

Breeding: 1; weaning occurs at about 12 months.

Life span: 70 years.


Their unusual name literally means "corpse whale", referring to the way in which they often swim upside down. Some people believe that the bizarre appearance of the narwhal first gave rise to the legend of the unicorn. The bizarre horn of the narwhal is actually derived from an elongated tooth that grows out through the skull and skin. Although its exact function is unclear, it is probably significant as part of the narwhal’s mating ritual.

Distribution: Parts of the Arctic Ocean near Greenland and the Barents Sea. The range is patchy.

Size: 4 - 5.5m (13 - 18 ft); 800 - 1,600 kg (1,750 - 3,500 lb).

Maturity: Females 5 - 8 years; males 11 - 13 years.

Breeding: Single calf born every 2 - 3 years.

Life span: 50 years.


The white whale is often known as the beluga. At birth, these whales are a dark brownish-red colour, but they then turn a deep blue-gray and gradually become paler until, at about 6 years of age, they are a creamy-white colour.

White whales feed on the bottom in shallow water, mainly on crustaceans and some fish. They actually swim underneath pack ice and can break their way up through the ice floes in order to breathe.

Most calves are born during late summer, and their mothers mate again a year or two later during early summer.

All belugas are highly vocal and make a variety of sounds for communication, as well as clicks used for echolocation. Their intricate songs caused them to be known as sea canaries by the nineteenth century whalers. Belugas congregate in herds of hundreds of individuals in order to migrate south in winter and then return to rich northern feeding grounds in summer.

Distribution: Arctic to gulfs of Alaska and St Lawrence.

Habitat: Shallow seas, estuaries, rivers.

Size: 3.4-4.6 m (11.25 - 15.25 ft); 1.3—1.5 tonnes (2,850 - 3,300 lb).

Food: Fish, squid, octopus, crabs and snails.

Maturity: Females 5 years; males 8 years.

Breeding: Single calf born every 2 - 3 years.

Life span: 25 years.