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New England Seabirds

 Wilson's Storm-petrel  Dave Jones

Other Sea Life

Cetaceans Index

Page 1
Taxonomy of whales and dolphins

Page 2
Behaviors of whales and dolphins

Cetaceans Index

Baleen Whales
Humpback Whale
Minke Whale
Fin Whale
Sei Whale
Blue Whale
Right Whale

Toothed Whales
Sperm Whale
Pilot Whale
Beaked Whales

Dolphins & Porpoises
White-sided Dolphin
Common Dolphin
Bottle-nose Dolphin
Risso's Dolphin
Spotted Dolphin
Striped Dolphin
Harbor Porpoise

Humpback Whale flipper slapping EB Tarru

Humpback Whale slapping tail.   Photo by E B Tarry.

Comments to webmaster

Comparative Behavior of Whales and Dolphins   Page 2

Whales and dolphins have conveniently migrated their nose to the top of their head where it is called the blow hole. This means they do not have to lift their entire head out of the water to breathe as seals do. Unlike humans the air passage is not connected to the mouth. When the whale surfaces it expels air from the lungs through the blow hole. This air contains droplets of water which make the breath visible.  Human breath contains droplets of water too.  This is why you can see your breath on a cold day.

Usually when they surface, whales blow out and breathe in several times before diving again. An animal hunting for food may come to the surface to breathe and right away dive again.

The blows of dolphins are only rarely visible, but you usually hear them if the animals is close to the boat or shore.

All Baleen Whales have two blow holes. The column of water can appear to be one tall column, a rounded puff, a "V" shaped blow depending on the way the holes point. The Sperm Whale has a single blow hole located on the left side of the front of the head.  The blow leans forward and to the left. Knowing the different types of blows will help you identify a whale a long distance from the boat. Toothed whales and dolphins have a single blow hole.

Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale Blow  Leonard Medlock

Humpback Whales have two blow holes, but the blow usually appears as a single puffy column. Notice that the blow and the dorsal fin are visible at the same time. Photo by Leonard Medlock

Gray Whale

Gray Whale blow tall column that falls over at top. California                      

The blow of the Gray Whale appears to be a tall column that falls over at the top. Notice the footprint behind this whale. Photo taken in California by Emmalee Tarry.  Gray Whales have been extirpated from the Atlantic Ocean.

Northern Atlantic Right Whale

Right Whale Blow Leonard Medlock

The Northern Atlantic Right Whale  shows a "V" shaped blow. Photo taken by Leonard Medlock on Jeffreys Ledge, NH.

Fin Whale

Fin Whale blow Jim Beseda

Fin Whales, Minke Whales, and Blue Whales have tall columnar blows. Photo by Jim Lambert.

Sperm Whale   Blow leans left


Sperm Whale Blow Leonard Medlock

The Sperm Whale has only one blow hole and it is located on the very front of the head and on the left side. The photo above by Leonard Medlock is taken almost directly behind the head and shows the blow leaning to the left.

Sperm Whale  Side View   Blow leans forward

                 Sperm Whale Jon Woolf  Blow

This picture by John Wolf is taken from the left side and shows the blow going forward and to the left. Notice the dorsal hump that is visible during the blow.


Diving Sequence

Behavior on the surface and the way the animal dives are called the "Diving sequence" and this varies by species and individuals. Usually when a whale surfaces for a breath, they stay on the surface and breathe and blow 3-4 times.

When they are ready to dive, some whales bend their back, roll forward, and finally lift their tail flukes above the water as part of the dive. This behavior is typical of the Humpback Whale shown in the picture to the right.

Photographers try to take a picture of the tail flukes just as they disappear. The white pattern on the underside of the flukes is unique to each individual and is used to recognize individual whales which are given names to help researchers recognize them. . Notice the rough edge to the trailing edge of the flukes also indicative of a Humpback Whale.

Humpback Whale Fluking

Other whales that may lift their tail flukes when diving are: Blue, Bowhead, Right, Gray, and Sperm Whales. Whales do not always fluke when diving. Some only fluke on deep dives. On St. Lawrence Island, I watched Gray Whales fluking repeatedly close to shore in what should have been shallow water.

Whales that do not or only rarely lift the flukes on diving are: Fin, Minke, Beaked, Sei, and Pilot Whales,

Schooling Behavior
When several animals swim together it is called a school (fish)  or more commonly with whales a pod. A pod may be a stable group with a fixed core of animals or simply a loose group that comes together for a time. Pods may be all one sex or animals of a certain age.

The Humpback whale males are solitary feeders coming together with females only for mating. The males have a song to attract females. The mother and calf pair is the basic unit although you can have several of these pairs feeding together.

Orcas sometimes called Killer Whales have stable pods consisting of related females and their offspring of both sexes. The pods hunts cooperatively.

Dolphins sometimes swim in pods of 1000 or more animals

Other Surface Behaviors


Animal lifts head from the water in order to look around but does not leap from the water. Common behavior of Gray Whales in a quiet lagoon.

Bow - Ride

Animals ride in the bow wave of a moving boat.  Usually associated with dolphins.  The webmaster observed a Minke Whale bow riding.

Leap or Breach

Animals  leaps from the water. Most often observed in dolphins which leap as part of swimming forward. Large whales leap from the water and fall on their backs.

Leap and Spin

Animal  leaps out of the water and twists completely around before falling back in the water.  Spinner Dolphins are named for this behavior.

Flipper Slapping

Animal lolls on the surface, slapping the water with one flipper.  This behavior commonly observed in Humpback Whales which slap their very long flippers.

Tail Slapping

Animals with head under water, slaps tail repeatedly.  Uncommon behavior of Humpback Whales. 


Animal lies on the surface of the water and drifts passively with the water.  Whale is not truly asleep.

Other Sea Life |   Cetaceans Index  |  Page 1  Taxonomy  |   Page 2 Behavior Top of Page       Comments to webmaster

Folkens, Peter (2002) Guide to Marine Mammals of the World Alfred A. Knopf New York
Kinze, Carl Charistian (2001) Marine Mammals of the North Atlantic Princeton University Press Princeton NJ