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How to Identify Different Types of Whales While Whale Watching

When going on a whale watching trip, it can be hard to spot specific whales if you aren’t entirely sure what you’re looking for. Luckily, whales have defining features that can help make spotting them an easier process. Below we have listed some important characteristics for whale identification during your San Diego whale watching excursion.

Whale Spout Blows

One distinguishing characteristic of whales are their whale spouts. When a whale breaches the ocean’s surface for air, it exhales through its blowhole, creating a spout spray. Due to the differing sizes and shapes of the sprays, you are able to determine which whale is near!

Gray Whales: On the gray whale, their two blowholes are positioned in such a way that when they exhale, their spout appears to be heart-shaped.

Orca Whales: The orca, also known as the killer whale, has more of a bushy blow that tends to stay more rounded on the top of the ocean.    

Humpback Whales: The humpback whale knows how to make an appearance with their tall blows, creating the shape of a large column. The blue whale also shares this characteristic.

Dorsal Fins

The dorsal fin is another feature that can help determine which sea creature is headed your way. If the whale has a dorsal fin, it will sit on the top of their back and is noticeable when the whale grazes the ocean’s surface.

Humpback Whales: The humpback whale has a very low, nub-like dorsal fin.

Orca Whales: The orcas have a very tall, distinctive dorsal fin.

Minke Whales, Fin Whales & Blue Whales: All three whales share a curved dorsal fin upon their broad backs.

Pacific White-Sided Dolphins: The pacific white-sided dolphins have curved and bi-colored dorsal fins.

Gray Whale: The gray whale is unique in that it has no dorsal fin at all!

Flukes

When whales dive deep into their ocean, their tail flukes will make an appearance above the water.

Humpback Whale and Blue Whale: These two whales have a beautiful lobed shaped tail fluke that is rather large compared to others.

Gray Whale and Orca Whale: The gray and orca whale have smaller tail flukes that take the shape of a paddle.

Minke Whale and Fin Whale: In contrast to the others, these two typically do not have a tail fluke seen.

Behaviors

Many whales have very unique and distinctive behaviors that make them stand out amongst others. Make sure to keep your eye out for any of the following:

Spyhopping: Both the orca and the humpback whale share this endearing feature. When wanting to take a look at their surroundings, they will stick their heads above water.

Fluking: The humpback whale, blue whale, orca, gray whale, and pacific white-sided dolphins participate in fluking. Fluking occurs when a whale arches its body to dive at a steeper angle, which results in its tail flukes appearing above water. As mentioned above, the fin and minke whales are not included in this for they rarely show their tail flukes when diving.

Breaching: The humpback whale and orca will propel themselves out of the water while landing upon their backs or stomachs. When doing so, they make a large splash that can be both seen and heard from large distances!

Bow Riding: Being very social, the pacific white-sided dolphin will sometimes swim in front of the bow wakes of boats. They either crisscross back and forth in front or choose to swim alongside the boats.

Porpoising: The pacific white sided-dolphin and orca enjoy porpoising, which is when they leap out of the water while moving onward.

Tail Slaps: The humpback whale and orca tail slap, which is when they lift their tail fin out of the water and smack it back down upon the ocean’s surface. When hitting the water, their slaps create both a splash and a slapping noise.