Different Types of Whales

There are many different types of whales in Australia.


Whales are some of the most amazing creatures amongst all Australian animals.


Just like seals and sea lions, they first developed to land mammals and then returned to the water.

Tail of Humpback Whale, Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia
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Evolution of Different Types of Whales
One of the most interesting things about whales and dolphins is that they are not fish like sharks for example. They first developed from fish to land mammals, and then returned to the water. Their legs turned to flippers and their bodies adapted to deep diving and speed swimming. They developed large lungs and tolerance to high levels of carbon dioxide. Whales and dolphins spend their entire lives in the water while seals and sea lions also spend some time on the land.

Humpback Whale Breaching, Dominican Republic, Caribbean
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Different Types of Whales - What Do Whales Eat?

Whales and dolphins belong to the order Cetacea. The world’s 10 species of filter-feeding baleen whales are members of the suborder Mysticeti, and the 70 species of predatory toothed whales belong to the suborder Odontoceti. Baleen whales are some of the largest animals in the world. They catch plankton and small crustaceans on the baleen plates that hang down from their upper jaw. Toothed whales like sperm whales, killer whales and dolphins (yes, dolphin is a whale and it has got about 120 teeth) have small teeth but they are only used for grasping prey, which is swallowed whole.

Humpback Whale Feeding in Frederick Sound in Alaska
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Surfacing Behaviour of Different Types of Whales
If you like whale watching activities you know about this.. “Spyhopping” means jumping vertically out of water head-first, and turning in a small circle before falling into the water again. “Flipper slapping” means slapping the flippers against the water surface which makes a loud noise. “Fluking” means lifting the tail out of water, which often happens before a big dive. “Lobtailing” means raising the tail out of water and slapping the flukes against water surface. The explosive cloud of droplets that forms when the whale breaths out is called “blow”.

Humpback Whale Breaching, Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia
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Communication in Different Types of Whales
All these surfacing behaviours are thought to be play and means of whale communication. Whales are very smart animals. We all know what dolphins can learn. Large whales can do the same. They communicate by calls and behaviour which convey information about an individual’s location, identity and intentions. Toothed whales like dolphins mostly communicate by whistles and squeaks, while baleen whales have more extensive vocalisations. But have you ever wondered about whale sounds whale songs, or why do whales sing?

Humpback Whale Mother and Calf, Silver Bank, Domincan Republic
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Singing in
Different Types of Whales
Migrating male Humpback whales have the most complex communication of all whales. They repeat two to four whales sounds to form a phrase, which is then repeated to form a theme. Seven or eight themes which are repeated in a specific order form a male humpback whale song which is sung by all males on a particular migration route, and the songs change over the time!

Dwarf Minke Whale, Ribbon Reefs, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia
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Facts about Whales - Humpback and Blue Whale Migration
Many species of whales migrate long distances between feeding and breeding grounds. Humpback whales for example migrate from their cold-water feeding grounds to the northern warm waters to breed. After giving birth and mating they return to colder waters and spend the summer there. Blue whales – the largest animals in the world - also migrate to Australia and can be seen along the southern coast between Portland in South Australia and Warrnambool in Victoria between December and May.
 
Humpback Whale, Megaptera Novaeangliae, Cow and Calf Bonding
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Echolocation in Different Types of Whales
How do they find their way? Whales use echolocation to navigate, and also to localise prey in deep water or darkness. Clicking sounds produced in nasal sacs when air is drawn through the blowhole is transmitted as high-frequency sound waves via forehead and picked up by lower jaw when they bounce back. After the brain has processed the information, the whale has a picture probably just as good as what we get through our eyes – three-dimensional information about size, location, speed and direction of movement of the prey.

In Eyre Fjord, Peale's Dolphins Lead the Way to the Face of Pio XI
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Facts about Whales - Whale Beaching, aka Whale Stranding
Whale stranding that sometimes happens is probably a consequence of errors in echo-navigation. One of the theories suggests that whales use the Earth’s magnetic field for their echolocation-navigation, but Earth’s magnetic field is not standing still. Whales may get confused when it changes and swim towards land. Another theory suggests that because whales are smart and very social animals, they don’t want to abandon each other and a group may follow a sick or dying whale to shore. This theory is supported by the fact that whales often strand in groups. Solitary strandings only happen when a sick or dead animal has been washed ashore, or when a young has got lost. There are eight species of whales in the waters around Australia.

Butchered Whales Line the Beach Following a Hunt, Frenchman Bay near Albany, Australia
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Different Types of Whales - Southern Right Whale

Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis) is a black whale with rounded body and white patches on the belly. It’s up to 18 metres long and weighs up to 80 tonnes (newborn weighs one tonne). Southern Right Whale has baleens and eats krill and plankton. Its blow is V-shaped and 5m long. Surface behaviour (see explanations higher up on this page) include breaching, fluke raising, flipper waving, slapping and lobtailing. Southern Right Whales know how to save energy – they raise their tails, keep them at a right angle to the wind and - sail. They come to shore to rest and to nurse their calves which is why they were easy catch for whalers in the early days. Although Southern Right whales are now protected, the species is still endangered. Southern Right can be seen along the whole southern coast of Australia.

Underwater View of a Southern Right Whale (Balaena Glacialis), Australia
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Different Types of Whales - Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) is not shorter than the Southern Right but it’s thinner and much lighter – it is 19 metres long and it weighs 30 tonnes. It has got a stout body, black on the back and white under the belly, and long flippers – one third of its body length. Humpback has baleens and eats krill and plankton. It has got a three metres high blow and its surface behaviour includes breaching, lobtailing, spyhopping, flipper slapping and flipper waving. It flukes at upright angle, and strandings occur. Humpback is one of the most popular whales to watch in Hervey Bay, Byron Bay and other places along both east and west coasts of Australia.

Humpback Whale Cow and Calf Underwater
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Different Types of Whales - Dwarf Minke Whale
Dwarf Minke Whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) is one of the smallest baleen whales – it is max eight metres long and weighs up to nine tonnes. It is dark bluish grey above and white under the belly. It eats krill, plankton and schooling fish. It feeds in coastal waters and can enter rivers. It has got a 2-3m blow, and the surface behaviour includes breach, spyhops, and 5-8 quick blows before diving. It strands occasionally and it may come to investigate boats. Dwarf Minke Whale is found everywhere around Australia and its status is secure.

Dwarf Minke Whale, Ribbon Reefs, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia
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Different Types of Whales - Bryde’s Whale

Bryde’s Whale (Balaenoptera edeni) is a max 14m long whale weighing up to 20 tonnes, with a dark grey back, light underside and short flippers. It eats krill, plankton and schooling fish, and it feeds year-around in subtropical and tropical waters. It has got a 4m-long single blow, you’ll see four to seven of them before it dives. Flukes don’t show when diving, but it breaches beautifully with most of the body above the surface. Bryde’s Whale is a high-speed swimmer and its deep dives may last up to eight minutes. It strands occasionally and it may be curious to come and investigate tour boats. It is found everywhere around Australia except along the coasts of Victoria and Tasmania.

Blue Whale, Porpoising, Azores, Portugal
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Different Types of Whales - Blue Whale
Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus) is the largest of all animals on the Earth. It is up to 33m long and weighs up to 120 tonnes. It is bluish above, yellowish under, and has two blow holes. It eats krill and plankton, and has a black baleen. Its blow is a spectacular column of 12m and it blows every 10 seconds for five minutes before diving. Adults don’t usually breach (probably because they are too heavy) and their flukes are exposed only briefly when diving. You can see them along the southern coast of Australia between November and May. Blue Whale was hunted almost to extinction and the species is still endangered.

Blue Whale (Balaenoptera Musculus) Surfacing, Santa Barbara Channel, California, Endangered
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Different Types of Whales - Sperm Whale

Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus) is the largest toothed whale. It’s up to 18m long and weighs up to 50 tonnes. It is black on the back, white under the belly, and has a large square head, short flippers, triangular flukes, and series of ridges on lower back. It eats fish and cephalopods and dives deep, deeper than 2000 metres. Its flukes are exposed when diving, and it spends 5-60 minutes on surface between dives. It lobtails, it breaches often and it strands occasionally. Its status is secure.

Sperm Whale (Physeter Macrocephalus) White Morph Near Surface, Azores Islands, Portugal
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Different Types of Whales - Pilot Whale

Pilot Whale (Globicephala spp) consists of two subspecies: Long-finned Pilot Whale (Globicephala melas) which is found in southern temperate waters, and Short-finned Pilot Whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus) which lives in northern tropical waters. In the middle they overlap so both subspecies are found along the coast between Newcastle in NSW and Brisbane in Queensland, and Pilbara and the southern Cape Leeuwin in Western Australia. They are small whales, only up to six metres long and weigh up to four tonnes. They are black above, with white patch under belly, and have a curved dorsal fin a bit like dolphins. They eat fish and cephalopods. They seldom breach, but flukes may be exposed when diving. Other surface behaviour includes logging, spyhopping and lobtailing. It takes many quick breaths before diving and it blows one metre. Pilot Whales are very social animals and mass strandings occur. Its species status is secure.

A Pod of Pilot Whales Swims off the Kona Coast
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Different Types of Whales - Killer Whale

Orca Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) is an efficient predator that eats fish, squid, seabirds, seals and even other whales. It is 9.5 metres long and weighs up to nine tonnes. Most of the body is black, but there is a white patch under the cheeks and belly, and a grey patch on sides near the (up to 1.8m high) dorsal fin. Surface behaviour includes breaching, spyhops, lobtails and flipper slapping. Killer whales live in tight family groups and mass strandings occur. They are often seen in coastal waters and they are found around all the coasts of Australia.

Breaching Killer Whale
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Facts about Whales - Whale Watching Tours Australia
Most of these places also offer whale watching tours – a boat will take you out to the sea where you can see them closer than from the land. Ask if you can get your money back in case the whales are not seen - many operators will make a deal.

Humpback Whale Statue at Boat Harbour, Urangan, Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia
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Facts about Whales - Hervey Bay and Warrnambool Whale Watching

There are also plenty of places in Australia where you can watch whales. June to October is the best time to watch migrating Humpback Whales either along the east coast between Cooktown and Tasmania, or west coast between Port Headland and Esperance in Western Australia. Southern Right Whales can be seen during the same months along the coast of southern Australia between Newcastle in east, and Perth in west. Classic spots for Australian whale-watch are Hervey Bay and North Stradbroke Island in Queensland, Cape Byron and Cape Howe in New South Wales, Warrnambool and Wilsons Promontory in Victoria, Storm Bay and Freycinet National Park in Tasmania, Portland and Coffin Bay in South Australia, and Cape Leeuwin in south-western WA.
 
















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