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Types of Whales

Order Cetacea


Types of Whales
Baleen Whale
Toothed Whale
Humpback Whale
Southern Right Whale

Whale Facts
Identifying Whales
Breach Whale
Where To See Whales

Whale Tours

Whale Map



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Whale • Order Cetacea

Whales are warm blooded mammals, that breath air through lungs and give birth to live young that are suckled on milk secreted from the mother’s mammary glands.

Together with dolphins and porpoises, they are collectively known as cetaceans (order Cetacea), with whales being divided into two groups:

The Toothed Whales (suborder: Odontoceti)

With around 72 species worldwide, these include groups such as the River Dolphins, Dolphins, Porpoises, Beluga, Narwhal, Sperm Whale, Pygmy Sperm Whales and Beaked Whales. The toothed whales have teeth for feeding, possess only one blowhole opening and have asymmetrical skulls. They usually feed on fish or squid, with the Toothed Whales diet including octopus, molluscs and polychaete worms. Some species, such as the Killer Whale eat other cetaceans, seals and sea otters.
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The Baleen Whales (suborder: Mysteceti)

With around 13 species worldwide, these include groups such as Gray Whale, Right Whales, Pygmy Right Whale and the ‘Rorquals’ (a group that includes the Blue, Fin, Minkes, Sei, Bryde’s and Humpback Whales. They differ from the toothed whales in being larger, having baleen (a rigid keratin-like material, similar to our fingernails) instead of teeth, which hangs in vertical strips from the upper jaw. They feed by filtering seawater to trap food such as planktonic invertebrates (eg krill), copepods, amphipods and small fish in the baleen plates attached to their upper jaws. Diet can also include molluscs, polychaete worms, and other planktonic invertebrates.

The large baleen whales (mysticetes) obtain their food by filter feeding using comb-like baleen plates that grow from the roof of the mouth. Prey is captured either by gulping large amounts of seawater and forcing it across the plates thereby trapping small food items, or by ‘skimming’ across the surface of the water and then removing trapped food with the tongue. Items such as krill, (shrimp-like crustaceans), copepods, amphipods,  make up most of the diet of the baleen whales.

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Humpback Whale

The female Humpback Whales can be up to 16 m in length, with the male being slightly smaller. The newborn are about 4-5 m in length. A slow swimmer, their dives usually last three to nine minutes, and up to 45 minutes, followed by four to eight blows. As baleen whales, Humpback’s do not have any teeth, their diet consist of krill and other crustaceans and fish which they feed on by filtering them between baleen plates which hang from the top jaw.

Nearly hunted to extinction, the last whaling station in NSW, at Byron Bay, closed in 1963 because of the lack of whales to be found. Humpback whales are now protected throughout Australia.

Identifying the Humpback Whales
As one of the most easily recognisable of the larger whales, the following points can assist in identifying the Humpback Whales:

  • Humpbacks get their name from the way they arch, or hump, their backs when they begin their dives. They will often roll forward to dive until only the tail sticks out of the water. This is called a fluke-up dive.
  • Often the first signs is the ‘blow‘’, a cloud of vapour that it shoots into the air when it breaks the surface to breath.
  • They lie on their sides or back, holding one or both flippers in the air.
  • Are known to fluke slap and flipper slap several times in a row.
  • They wave their long pectoral fins; do a leisurely body roll that ends with a splash as their pectoral fin smacks the surface of the water.
  • Humpback Whales can launch themselves out of the water in a awe-inspiring motion called ‘breaching’.
  • A dark grey or black body, with white patches on its belly, pectoral fins and underside of the tail flukes.
  • Long pectoral fins which are almost all white underneath, with bumps on the leading edges. Unlike any other whale, the humpback’s flukes and pectoral fins are scalloped or serrated on the trailing edge.
  • A slim head, or rostrum, covered with knobs with a distinctive rounded protuberance near the tip of the lower jaw.
  • Large numbers of barnacles often covering both the rostrum and pectoral fins.
  • A small dorsal fin.
  • As rorquals, they have distinctive throat grooves. They have up to 35 broad ventral throat grooves, extending at least to their navels.

What do they sound like?
Humpback Whales are one of the most exuberant of all whale species, celebrated by mankind for their energetic antics and haunting whale ‘songs’. The male Humpback Whales often ‘sing’ during migration. The ‘songs’ are a complex sequence of clicks, moans and spine-tingling high-pitched wails that can last for a few second or up to an hour. The ‘songs’ seem to change subtly each year and may be a way of attracting a mate, with different Humpback populations singing their own unique songs.

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Southern Right Whale

The Southern Right Whale can grow to about 18 m in length, weighing  up to 100 tonnes. Newborn are about 4.5 to 6 m in length. With a diet consisting of krill and other crustaceans, they tend to be a slow lumbering swimmer, often seen waving and flapping flippers. It is also seen doing headstand for up to two minutes.

In Australia’s early history, the southern right whale established itself as one of the colony’s main export industries. It was called the ‘right’ whale because it swam slowly, floated when killed, and yielded high quantities of oil and baleen. Because the whales were once plentiful, ships would stay for a while after bringing convicts to the colony, to hunt the southern rights.

By the 1840s, the southern right whales population had almost been wiped out and the whaling industry collapsed. With the ban on whaling, the populations of southern rights have been recovering, scientists today, estimate that there are around 5,000 southern right whales in the world. Southern right whales are protected throughout Australia, and are still listed as a threatened species.

Identifying the Southern Right Whales
The following points can assist in identifying the Southern Right Whales:

  • Southern Rights have a very distinctive ‘V’-shaped blow, a cloud of vapour blown out when the whale surfaces to breathe.
  • A fluke-up dive, rolling forward to dive, until only their tails stick out of the water.
  • A spy hop, raising the head out of the water to look around.
  • Southern Rights lie near the surface of the water, with one or both of their pectoral fins above the water.
  • The female Southern Rights can also be seen suckling their young.
  • Dark skin, with irregular white patches on the throat and belly.
  • A round body which tapers to a relatively narrow tail stock.
  • A broad tail, with flukes which form a wide triangle with a notch in the middle.
  • Large, broad pectoral fins, which have a rectangular shape.
  • A large, narrow head with a highly arched mouth.
  • A series of natural growths called callosites on the front of the rostrum or head. The largest of these callosites is called the ‘bonnet’. Callosites are also found on the whale’s chin, on the sides of the head, on the lower lips, above the eyes, and near the blowholes.

Source: Variety of sources including the Australian Museum, NSW Parks & Wildlife Service,
 QLD Environmental Protection Agency, Parks & Wildlife Tasmania

If there are any factual errors, please email us.
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