How Can You Tell Which Whale You Are Looking At?


We use the name whale for about 70 kinds of animals. So how can you tell who is who? Not all 70 kinds live in the area around Cape Cod. In fact, some don’t even live in the Atlantic Ocean. But even the dozen or so that live are found in the northeast are different and easy to identify.

Remember, the category whale includes dolphins and porpoises. First – look at the animal’s size. Most dolphins are less than ten feet long; porpoises are not much more than six feet. Whales are much bigger, some are as long as a large airplane. Next – look at its mouth. Dolphins and a few whales have teeth for catching their food.

All the other whales have baleen – plates with fringe that hang from their upper jaws and trap their food, like a sieve. An easy way to tell if a whale uses teeth or baleen to catch food is to count the number of blowholes – breathing holes – on the top of their heads. Toothed whales have only one blow hole, baleen whales have two. Near Cape Cod the toothed whales that you’ll see most often are dolphins, smaller animals with patterns on their sides, or pilot whales, black animals with a white patch under their chins and a square head. The baleen whales you’ll most likely see are humpbacks, large animals with exceptionally long flippers, up to 12 feet in some cases.

Humpback whales have flat heads and a small fin on their backs. Another kind of baleen whale is the right whale. It has a large, square head and no fin. Now when you see a whale or a picture of a whale, see if you can guess the kind of whale – check its size, count the number of blowholes, look at the shape of its head, the size of the fin on its back, and the length of its flippers.