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Whale species

Learn more about the different whale species and cetaceans you might see when you’re whale watching in NSW national parks.

Read more about Whale species

Toothed whales

Toothed whales have teeth, but some – such as Baird’s beaked whale – have tusks, while the narwhal has a long spiraled horn, much like the mythical unicorn.

The odontoceti include beaked whales, bottlenose whales and dolphins. It also includes the smallest of the cetaceans, the porpoise, and one of the largest, the sperm whale, as well as the largest type of dolphin, the orca which is also known as the killer whale.

Toothed whales tend to eat squid, octopus, crustaceans, fish and occasionally other marine mammals.

Toothed whales have a single blowhole on the top of the head, which was formed from one of the nostrils becoming dominant over the other, rather than from them fusing together.

Baleen whales

Baleen whales are named after their feeding apparatus: baleens. Baleen consists of a series of sloping plates made from keratin, the same material that makes up our fingernails. These hang from the roof of the mouth and are used to filter plankton, krill and schooling fish.

The lower jaws are very flexible and the mouth is expandable to accommodate the gulping method of feeding. Food is caught in the bristles of the baleen, while water is forced out of the mouth through the gaps.

Baleen whales have two blowholes, which in right whales produce a distinctive V-shaped blow, the spout of water spray and vapour blown out when the whale surfaces to breathe.

Unlike most other marine mammals, female baleen whales are larger than males.

Baleen whales include right whales (southern rights, pygmy rights), gray whales and rorquals. The dorsal-finned rorquals include the largest animal on earth, the blue whale which can grow up to 34m in length. Other rorquals that can be found in coastal Australian waters are the fin, sei, Bryde’s and minke whales. These whales have all been subject to considerable human exploitation.

Fortunately, and thanks to conservation efforts, whale populations of some of these species are on the rise, ready for you to see on their annual migration between May and November along the NSW coastline.

Beaked whales

There are about 20 different species of beaked whales in the world’s oceans. Their key distinguishing feature is the presence of a ‘beak’, somewhat similar to that of most dolphin species. Beaked whales are highly specialised to dive to great depths and remain submerged for prolonged periods—20 to 30 minutes is common, and 85 minute dives have been recorded. Look for beaked whales between May and November when they make their annual migration along the NSW coastline.

Complex throat muscles help these animals suck their prey in, since they lack teeth for feeding. The teeth that some species of beaked whales do have are usually only used for fighting with other males.

These animals are so elusive that most of what we know about them comes from stranded animals. In NSW, the strap-toothed beaked whale is one of the most commonly stranded species of beaked whales. Size-wise, beaked whales range from four to 13m in length and can weigh from one to 15 tonnes. Although the diet of beaked whales varies between and within species, squid are a key component of their overall diet.

Blue whales

Blue whales are the largest animal ever known to have lived on earth, even larger than any dinosaur. Blue whales average 24m in length and can weigh up to 136 tonnes. Females are larger than males. Blue whales have greyish blue skin with white spots and a small dorsal fin set far back on their body. They can move at speeds of up to 48km/h and dive as deep as 500m, lasting 10 to 20 minutes underwater. You might be lucky enough to spot a blue whale between May and November when they make their annual migration along the NSW coastline.

Blue whales use baleen plates to strain food, usually krill, from the water. These animals spend winters in temperate and subtropical areas and travel to polar regions for summer. They usually travel alone or in small groups of two to four whales.

Whaling of blue whales

Unfortunately, due to their large size and therefore high commercial value, blue whales were extensively hunted. The arrival of industrial whaling using faster boats and harpoon guns allowed for increased hunting on blue whales, and by the 1960s the species was nearly extinct.

Despite decades of protection, blue whale populations have yet to recover from the impacts of commercial whaling. It’s estimated that the worldwide population of blue whales is only 1,200 to 3,000, and therefore they are considered an endangered species.

Blue whales now face other threats such as marine and noise pollution, entanglement in fishing gear, collision with ships and climate change.

Watch blue whales in NSW

Australia is one of the best places to see whales in the world. You can spot them off the shore of a beach, from a boat or you could venture into a national park and view them from a headland. Seeing a blue whale is quite rare, but when it does happen, it is definitely a memorable experience. You can hope to catch a glimpse of these grand beauties off the NSW coastline during winter.

Bryde's whales

Bryde’s whales (pronounced BROO-duhz) are named after a Norwegian whaling entrepreneur nearly a century ago. They are baleen whales and rorquals. Rorquals – Norwegian for “furrowed whale” – have a series of longitudinal folds of skin running from below the mouth back to the navel.

Like other rorquals, Bryde’s whales are long and slender and have much more streamlined bodies than other large whales. Bryde’s whales are dark grey in color on the dorsal side with a yellowish white ventral side. They have an average length of 12m, and the female is longer than the male. These whales can weigh 12 to 20 tonnes.

Bryde’s whales are found in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans and off the coast of Ethiopia in warm temperate and sub-tropical waters. They are not migratory, but are known to move between inshore to offshore waters to follow food. They feed almost exclusively on:

  • pelagic fish, such as pilchard, mackerel, herring, and anchovies;
  • pelagic crustaceans, such as shrimp, crabs, and lobsters; and
  • cephalopods, such as octopus, squid, and cuttlefish.

Bryde’s whales are quite opportunistic and will consume whatever shoaling prey is available. They often take advantage of the activities of other predators by swimming through and engulfing the fish they have herded. They are therefore frequently found in areas of high fish abundance, along with seabirds, seals, sharks, and other cetaceans.

It is not known how many of these whales inhabit Australian waters, but remarkably, a Bryde’s whale swam up the Manning River near Taree, in Northern NSW in 1995.

Dolphins

Dolphins are one of the most popular animals in the wild, with their beautiful streamlined bodies, friendly ‘smiley’ faces and intelligent behaviour.

When out whale watching, you will most likely catch a glimpse of dolphins too. Get out into NSW’s national parks at these whale watching hotspots for a chance to see these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat.

Dolphins are the most abundant and varied of all cetaceans, and can be found in the open ocean, close to the coast in estuaries and in rivers. There are over 40 species of dolphins worldwide.

Dolphins are toothed whales and eat a variety of fish, squid and octopus. Their size varies enormously, from the small maui or hector’s dolphin (1.4m and 50kg) to the large orca or killer whale, which can be around 9m long and weigh over 7.5 tonnes.

Dolphins are social creatures that live in pods of up to 12 individuals; however pods can be larger where there is an abundance of food.

Watch dolphins in NSW

Bottlenose dolphins are a relatively common sight along the entire NSW coastline. This species’ dark grey back and light grey belly colouring acts as camouflage and helps protect them from attacks by their natural enemies – killer whales and sharks. They can often be seen in bays and estuaries opening to the sea, and also ‘surfing’ in waves as they are forming and breaking.

One of the best places to see dolphins are in NSW’s national parks. The region around Jervis Bay on the NSW South Coast, and Port Stephens on the NSW Mid North Coast provide the perfect opportunities to view these happy mammals.

Did you know that around 90-120 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins live permanently in the waters of Port Stephens within the Port Stephens – Great Lakes Marine Park, making it one of the most popular places in the world for dolphin watching?

To help protect dolphins it is important to keep the environment clean. Rubbish and plastic waste that ends up in the water can impact negatively on dolphins, which become entangled or swallowed, mistaking it as food. Dolphins can sometimes strand, either alone or in groups. View more information on the conservation of these amazing animals.

If you find a beached dolphin, keep it wet and cool, and call the ORRCA 24 hour rescue line: 02 9415 3333.

False killer whales

False killer whales are toothed whales and as their name suggests, they are similar to, but not directly related to killer whales (orcas). Like Orcas, false killer whales are a large species of dolphin. Long and slender with elongated heads and dark grey or black bodies, they are often referred to as “blackfish”. False killer whales have a much smaller and curved dorsal fin compared to orcas.

Male false killer whales are larger than females and can grow as long as 6m and weigh up to 2.2 tonnes. This compares to 4.5m and 1.2 tonnes for females. They can live for up to 60 years.

False killer whales live on a diet of squid, dolphinfish (also known as “mahi-mahi”), tuna, sharks, and marine mammals including sea birds, seals and walruses. They have also be known to attack other dolphins, as well as humpback and sperm whales.

Fast and energetic, false killer whales are active and playful and are often seen approaching boats. They have even been known to donate fish they have caught to the people on the boat! They form large pods of up to 60 individuals, sometimes even swimming with other species, such as bottlenose dolphins, forming combined pods numbering in the hundreds.

As social as they are in the water, they unfortunately also tend to stick together when beaching. In Western Australia in 1986, a pod of 114 false killer whales became stranded at Flinders Bay, resulting in a three-day rescue. There is also a reported case of as many as 800 false killer whales involved in a mass stranding.

False killer whales are typically found in tropical waters and it is not known whether they take part in annual migrations. They normally stick to the open ocean, however have been known to venture to coastal waters, including up and down the NSW coast.

Humpback whales

Humpback whales are the stars of the annual whale migration and are one of the most common whales you will see when whale watching. To view these majestic creatures, see them on their annual migration along the NSW coastline.

Humpback whales are a baleen whale and are renowned for their spectacular behaviour. Humpbacks will leap out of the water, roll in the air with their huge pectoral fins outstretched like wings, and crash noisily back into the water. This is called breaching and scientists are still trying to figure out why humpbacks do this. They might do it to clean pests from their skin or they might simply do it for fun. Humpback whales have a small dorsal fin located nearly two-thirds of the way down their back, and their backs steeply arch as they dive – this is how the humpback got its name and it helps whale watchers distinguish them from other species.

Other distinguishing features include large pectoral fins (which may be up to a third of the body length), and unique markings of black and white on the underside of the tail flukes. These markings are like fingerprints, no two are the same. This fingerprint, or fluke identification, helps researchers identify individuals as they migrate along the coast.

Songs

The male humpback whale is famous for its extraordinarily long and complex songs which travel very far throughout the oceans. These submarine songs, composed by several elements, can last for hours. They are specific to different populations and can be heard hundreds of kilometres away. Scientists think that the humpbacks do this to communicate with other whales and to potentially attract a mate.

Bubble-feeding

Humpbacks have developed a unique method of gathering prey. They release rings of bubbles at depth to capture schools of small fish and then surface mouth-open in the centre of the ring. Cooperative ‘bubble-netting’ also occurs with multiple whales all releasing bubbles and surfacing together.

Migrations

Most humpback whales make exceptionally long journeys every year between their feeding and breeding sites. Humpbacks can travel up to 8 km/h but during their long migration journey they average only 1.6km/h, resting and socialising along the way.

Because seasons are reversed on either side of the equator, northern and southern hemisphere populations of humpbacks probably never meet. Those in the north travel towards their breeding grounds in tropical waters as those in the south are traveling towards the pole to feed, and vice versa.

Watch humpback whales in NSW

Coastal NSW national parks are a great place to go to whale watching. From Byron Bay in the north, to Eden, in the south, you’re sure to see some humpback whales cruising along the ‘humpback highway’ as they make their annual migration.

Humpback facts

  • Length Adults: 14m to 18m; Calves: 4m to 5m at birth
  • Weight Adults: up to 50 tonnes; Calves: 2 tonnes at birth
  • Gestation: 11 to 11.5 months
  • Weaning age: up to 11 months
  • Calving interval: 2 to 3 years
  • Physical maturity age: 12 to 15 years
  • Sexual maturity age: 4 to 10 years
  • Mating season: June to October
  • Calving season: June to October
  • Cruising speed: 8km/h
  • Blow pattern: Small and bushy, up to 4m
  • Protected Since 1965

Minke whales

Minke whales are a type of rorqual whale and are the smallest and most abundant of the baleen whales. They grow to be about 8-9m long and weigh between 5,400 to 6,800kg. As with all baleen whales, females are larger than males. Their long slender bodies are black to dark grey on top and white on the underside and they have a narrow, triangular jaw.

There are two species of minke whales: the common or northern minke whale and the Antarctic or southern minke whale. Minkes are known for their curiosity and they sometimes swim beside ships at speeds of up to 34km/h.

Minke whales have the same diet as blue whales, feeding mainly on krill or small schooling fish. These elegant cetaceans often travel alone, but sometimes can be found in small pods of two to three individuals.

Minke whales are not as plentiful as humpback whales, but if you’re lucky, you may still see one!

Whaling of minke whales

Minke whales are the most widely hunted species in our oceans and continue to be threatened by continued commercial and so-called scientific whaling by Iceland, Norway and Japan.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified minke whales in their Red List Category and Criteria as 'Least Concern'. That means the population is estimated to be above the threshold considered to be threatened. However, the IUCN also recommends ongoing monitoring of the impact that the expected rise in Arctic temperatures have on minke whales in that region.

Orcas

Orcas or killer whales are odontocetes and the largest species of dolphins. They are easily recognisable with their striking black and white or cream markings and extremely long, tapered dorsal fins. You might be lucky to see one from the shores of a NSW national park.

Adult male orcas can grow to over 9m long and weigh over 7.5 tonnes, while females can grow to eight metres or longer and weigh up to four tonnes.

Orcas have 10 to 12 pairs of interlocking, powerful, conical teeth in both jaws. They are carnivorous and opportunistic hunters who feed on a wide range of species including:

  • fish, such as salmon
  • squid
  • sea birds, including penguins
  • pinnipeds, such as seals, sea lions and walruses
  • other whales.

Orcas hunt in groups (pods) of three to 40 individuals using highly effective, cooperative hunting techniques, which is why they have the nickname ‘wolves of the sea’. Orcas are apex or top-level predators. That means they are at the top of the food chain with virtually no predators of their own. However this places them at risk of health effects from the marine pollutants and contaminants they absorb from the food they eat.

Orcas are highly social animals that live in small nuclear or extended family groups. They have a ‘cosmopolitan’ distribution, which means they are found in NSW and many parts of the world.

Pygmy sperm whales

The pygmy sperm whale is amongst the smallest of all whales; they are about 1.2m at birth, growing to around 4m at maturity. Adults weigh about 400kg.

Pygmy sperm whales are found in the temperate waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, including Australia. Get out into a coastal NSW national park to see if you can spot them. They have 12 to 16 sharp pairs of teeth in the lower jaw and feed on squid, octopus, shrimp, fish and crab.

Pygmy sperm whales are found singly or in groups of two to three individuals. However, they are rarely sighted at sea, so most of what we know about this species comes from stranded animals. Pygmy sperm whales are also one of the most commonly stranded species in NSW.

Southern right whales

The southern right whale is a baleen whale and one of three species classified as right whales. This species is easily distinguished from others because of their broad back without a dorsal fin, wide pectoral fins, a long arching mouth that begins above the eye and small rough patches of skin (or callosities) on its large head.

It has very dark grey or black skin, with occasional white patches on the belly. Its two separate blow holes produce a distinguishing V-shaped blow. Southern rights have an enormous head which is up to one quarter of total body length. The callosities on the head are made of hard material, similar to human finger-nails, which appear white due to large colonies of whale lice called cyamids. The number, shape and position of the callosities are unique to each individual whale, and allow us to tell them apart. Southern right whales tend to have a large callosity at the front of the head, called a ‘bonnet’.

Whaling of southern right whales

Land-based whaling in Australia initially concentrated on southern right whales. They get their name because they were the ‘right’ whale to catch: they were slow-swimming, floated when dead, and provided large amounts of valuable products – particularly oil for illumination and lubrication.

Commercial whaling began in Australia in 1820, taking around 75% of the southern right whale population between 1835 and 1845, when the industry collapsed. It took another 90 years before they were officially protected.

An estimated 12,000 southern right whales are spread throughout the southern hemisphere, compared to an original population before whaling of more than 100,000. However, their numbers are growing at around 7% per annum, which means that sightings are becoming increasingly common, which is all the better for whale watchers!

Migrations

These days, southern right whales delight whale watchers with their peculiar looks and crowd attracting antics, like breaching and headstands. They are increasingly seen on the NSW coastline from May to the end of November. You can spot them off the shore of a beach, on a boat or venture into a NSW national park.

Southern right whales can be found in very shallow water including estuaries and bays. They have even been known to swim into the surf zone, but are not known to strand. If you are lucky enough, you may even delight in watching the mothers and calves playing together. This is a very important time for the calf, as the mother is teaching its young the life skills it will need before it returns to the Antarctic.

Southern right whale facts

  • Length Adults: 14m to 18m; Calves: 5m to 6m at birth
  • Weight Adults: up to 80 tonnes; Calves: 1 to 1.5 tonnes at birth
  • Gestation: 11 to 12 months
  • Weaning age: 11 to 12 months
  • Calving interval: generally 3 years
  • Physical maturity age: unknown; Length: 16m
  • Sexual maturity age: 9 to 10 years
  • Length: 12m to 13m
  • Mating season: July to August
  • Calving season: June to August
  • Cruising speed: 3km/h
  • Blow pattern: V-shaped bushy blow, up to 5m
  • Protected since 1935

Sperm whales

Sperm whales are the largest of all odontocetes and among the deepest diving of all cetaceans – they are known to dive over 1km and they can stay underwater for over an hour at a time, so you are lucky if you spot them. They are best known through the sperm whale character ‘Moby Dick’ in Herman Melville’s story of the same name.

Sperm whales have a unique appearance with a massive blunt, squared off head that can be up to 7m long (or one-third the total body length) and a relatively small under-slung jaw. Adult males can grow up to between 15-18m long and weigh 35 tonnes while females can grow to 11m long and weigh up to 14 tonnes.

Sperm whales have a single blowhole on the left side of their head and it sits facing forward causing their bushy blow to project forwards rather than straight up in the air. Their bodies have a wrinkled and shrivelled appearance especially behind the head.

Sperm whales mostly eat deep water squid but also feed on fish, skate and octopus. A sperm whale can eat a tonne of food a day.

They have a cosmopolitan distribution but male sperm whales are found mostly in higher latitudes. These males sometimes migrate to lower latitudes, but only the largest males seem to migrate to the equatorial breeding grounds. Females, calves and juveniles remain in the warmer tropical and sub-tropical waters.

Despite being widely hunted during the 19th and early 20th centuries, sperm whale populations remain quite healthy, especially in the southern oceans. Sperm whales are one of the more common stranding species on the coasts of NSW.