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Types of Whales and Dolphins

On your Eco Whale Watching Tour, you may encounter a lot of other wild sea animals off the coast of Sydney. These include Dolphins, Seals, Albatross, Squid and Sharks.

You will find the information below a handy guide of the types of marine animals that may be spotted.


Size: 3 to 3.9 metres.

Bottlenose dolphins have a relatively short, stubby beak with 21 to 29 pairs of teeth in each jaw. The mouth curves up in a permanent ‘smile’. They have a prominent, hooked dorsal fin located in the middle of the body. The flippers are of a moderate length and are pointed at the tip.

Generally, the upper body is dark grey and grades to white on the belly, though some may be the one colour. However, between individuals the grey colour varies through many shades.

Bottlenose dolphins are easily identified as the dolphins used in the television program ‘Flipper’. They are playful, actively pursuing vessels and riding with ease and grace in the bow wave. Most of the dolphins in Australian dolphinaria are bottlenose dolphins.

They are widely distributed and are often seen close inshore. This is the species seen at Monkey Mia in Shark Bay, Western Australia. Some coastal populations have a restricted distribution, residing in a particular bay or coastal region. Bottlenose dolphins are the most common stranded cetacean in Australia, usually singly or in small groups.

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Size: 2.1 to 2.5 metres.

Common dolphins have a relatively high dorsal fin, pointed flippers, a relatively long beak and 45 to 51 pairs of small teeth in each jaw.

The back is grey to black and the tip of the beak and lips are mainly black. A black bridal extends from the black patch around each eye toward the beak, and a dark line extends from the base of each flipper to the underside of the lower jaw. The side of the body has a criss-cross or hourglass pattern. The colour of the criss-cross pattern near the tail is usually grey, while near the head it varies from white through grey to yellow or ochre.

Common dolphins are widely distributed and seen frequently (at times in large groups) in Australian waters. They are playful animals, riding easily in the bow wave of a vessel and swimming in a spectacular fashion. This species can be confused with the striped dolphin.

Apart from bottlenosed dolphins, common dolphins strand more often than other dolphins. After death, the bright colours and finer markings may disappear making identification difficult.

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Size: 5 to 6 metres.

False killer whales are more slender and streamlined, and lack the striking black and white body pattern of the killer whales. The head has a narrow profile and the lower jaw ends well before the tip of the rounded rostrum. The flippers are pointed and have a distinct ‘elbow’ in the middle, and the dorsal fin , although much smaller than that of the killer whales, is still prominent and is distinctly hooked with a rounded tip. There are 8 to 11 pairs of robust teeth in each jaw.

Most specimens are completely black but some may have a blaze of grey in the shape of an anchor from the tip of the lower jaw along the throat towards the navel and on the underside of the flippers.

False killer whales are one of the most common mass stranded cetaceans on the Australian coast. They can be seen in all Australian waters, often travelling in schools of several hundred individuals. False killer whales may sometimes ride in the bow wave of ships and may be easily confused with pilot whales.

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Size: 14 to 19 metres, average 14 to 15 metres.

Humpback whales have a stocky body with a broad head and long flippers up to one third of the total body length. The dorsal fin is small, often sitting on a ‘hump’ in the back. Knobby protruberances with a bristle hair and often with barnacles growing on them occur on the head, jaws and flippers. The lower jaw has a rounded projection near its tip. The rear margin of the tail flukes and leading edge of the flippers is scalloped.

The body is black on the back and white underneath and sometimes on the sides. The flippers and underside of the tail flukes are usually white. The baleen plates are black.

Humpback whales migrate from Antarctica to the sub-tropical waters of Australia to give birth and mate during winter and spring. Consequently whale watchers are most likely to see this species in the coastal waters of eastern and western Australia. Humpback whales frequently perform spectacular aerial leaps, often raise their tail flukes before diving and ‘sing’ long complex ‘songs’ during the breeding season. Individuals can be identified from the colour pattern under the tail.

Large numbers of humpback whales were taken by whaling operations on Norfolk Island and

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Size: 8 to 9.5 metres (males are larger than females).

Killer whales are powerful and robust with large broad rounded flippers and 10 to 12 pairs of large conical teeth in each jaw. Adult males have a tall erect dorsal fin which may be up to 1.8 metres high. In females the dorsal fin is not as tall and slightly hooked.

The black and white pattern on the killer whale is striking. On the back they are black from the tip of the rostrum to the tail, with a white patch above the eye, and a light grey saddle patch behind the dorsal fin. On the belly, white extends to the chin and branches into a white process on each side of the body. The underside of the flukes is also white.

Killer whales are voracious predators. They hunt singly or in groups feeding on fish, seals and other cetaceans. They are usually found in groups and are commonly seen in Australian waters, and occasionally close inshore. They sometimes strand on the Australian coast.

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Size: 5.5 to 5.9 metres (short finned), 5.5 to 6.5 metres (long finned).

Both species of pilot whales have a pronounced bulging forehead which may overhang the tip of the upper jaw. The dorsal fin is low, broad-based, deeply concave on the rear margin and nearer to the head than to the tail. The body is dark with a white anchor shaped patch on the throat. Teeth are set near the front of the jaw.

Pilot whales are one of the most common mass stranded cetaceans on the Australian coast. Strong social bonds between members of group could account for the mass strandings of this and other species such as false killer whales.

The two species are difficult to distinguish apart, particularly at sea. Features which can be used to separate them are:

Distribution.
Long finned pilot whales occur in temperate waters
Short finned pilot whales are found in more tropical waters.

Length and shape of flippers.
Long finned pilot whales have longer flippers with a distinct ‘elbow’
Short finned pilot whales have shorter and smoothly curved flippers.

Number of teeth.
Long finned pilot whales have 8 to 12 pairs in each jaw
Short finned pilot whales have 7 to 9 pairs.

Colouration.
Long finned pilot whales may have a more distinctive white patch just behind the dorsal fin.

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Size: 13 to 18 metres, average 15 metres.

Southern right whales are robust and have a strongly arched mouth and long baleen plates. Large white bumps (callosities) occur on the top of the head, along the edges of the lower jaw and along the eye. Southern right whales have no dorsal fin. The flippers are large and rounded and the flukes have a broad smooth rear margin separated by a deep notch. The flukes are often lifted out of the water as the animal dives. Southern right whales are predominantly black but some may have patches of white.

Southern right whales migrate to the southern coasts of Australia each winter. Because of their habit of calving or resting with young calves in shallow water just beyond the surf line, they are easily observed, particularly from headlands.

The early whalers regarded the southern right whales as the ‘right’ whales to hunt. They are slow swimmers, float when dead and yield much oil and baleen. Consequently, early whaling in Australia took large numbers of southern right whales and now only a few hundred visit the Australian coast each year. The shapes of the white callosities on the head are unique for each individual and provide an easy means of identification. Southern right whales rarely strand.