Cetaceans are a group of marine mammals that include whales, dolphins and porpoises. The group is divided into mysticetes (baleen whales) and odontocetes (toothed whales, dolphins and porpoises). There are fourteen different species that inhabit Atlantic Canadian waters.

Commonly Encountered Cetaceans

COSEWIC-CSofWSOf the many species that occur in our these waters, more than fifteen are commonly sighted or encountered. Profiles of these species can be found below. Canadian species conservation status as assessed either by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and/ or listed under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) is indicated for each species.


Dolphins and Porpoises


Baleen Whales


Toothed Whales



Dolphins and Porpoises

DescriptionAtlantic White-Sided Dolphin

Maximum Size: Male: 9’3″ (2.8 m); Female: >8′ (2.4 m)
Colour: Bold white patch on side; yellowish-tan streak on flank just above white patch on the belly. The back, fluke, flippers, dorsal fin, and top beak are black. A dark patch surrounds the eye, and a light gray stripe extends from just in front of the eye to the flipper. The belly and throat are white, which extends up onto the side above the flipper
Key Features:
1) Head Shape: Short, thick beak
2) Flipper Shape: Sickle-shaped
3) Dorsal Fin: Moderately tall and falcate dorsal fin
4) Teeth: 29 to 40 pairs of small teeth in the upper jaw and 31 to 38 pairs in the lower

DescriptionCommon Dolphin

Maximum Size: 6 m / 19 ft
Colour: Brown, gray, blue-gray or black
Key Features:
1) Extremely large upper lobe of the caudal fin (may be as long or longer than body length)
2) Short stubby snout
3) Second dorsal fin is much smaller than the first dorsal fin







DescriptionKiller Whale

Maximum Size: Male: 2.5 m; Female: 2.2 m
Colour: Dull yellow/ tan thoracic panel between the dark cape and white ventral patch forward of the dorsal fin. The bold colouration forms a criss-crossing hourglass pattern below the dark saddle, and a lighter gray area extends up to the tail stock. Narrow, dark stripes extend from the lower jaw to the flipper and from the eye to the anal area.
Key Features:
1) Head Shape: Rounded melon with moderately long beak
2) Dorsal Fin: Tall, pointed, falcate dorsal fin located in the middle of the back
Distinct, bright contrasting colouration patterns. Dull yellow/ tan thoracic panel between the dark cape and white ventral patch forward of the dorsal fin. The bold colouration forms a criss-crossing hourglass pattern below the dark saddle, and a lighter gray area extends up to the tail stock. Narrow, dark stripes extend from the lower jaw to the flipper and from the eye to the anal area.



DescriptionRisso’s Dolphin

Maximum Size: Male: 12’6″ (3.83 m); Female: 12′ (3.66 m)
Colour: Brown, gray, blue-gray or black
Key Features:
1) Extremely large upper lobe of the caudal fin (may be as long or longer than body length)
2) Short stubby snout
3) Second dorsal fin is much smaller than the first dorsal fin





DescriptionWhite-Beaked Dolphin

Maximum Size: 6 m / 19 ft
Colour: Dorsal surface ranges within a single school from pale buff to dark brown to gray. Lip margins and chin are often white. The eye area is dark-shaded. All adults have light gray or white markings on the underside, mostly consisting of an anchor-shaped chest patch connected by a light streak to a large, diffuse zone of white between the umbilicus and the anus. Young calves are gray to brown dorsally and cream ventrally.
Key Features:
1) Head Shape: Broad head with squarish profile and creased in front. A characteristic longitudinal furrow; no beak, however the upper jaw projects slightly beyond the lower
2) Flipper Shape: Sickle-shaped
3) Dorsal Fin: Tall, erect, and moderately falcate dorsal fin
4) Blow Shape: Small, inconspicuous blow (more distinct after long dives)

DescriptionBottlenose Dolphin

Maximum Size: Male: 8′-12’6″ (2.45-3.8 m); Female: 7’10″-12′ (2.4-3.7 m)
Colour: Gray body with muted color pattern
Key Features:
1) Head Shape: Wide head with short to medium-length beak
2) Flipper Shape: Long and pointed
3) Dorsal Fin: Large, falcate dorsal fin







DescriptionHarbour Porpoise

Maximum Size: Male: 5’2″ (1.57 m); Female: 5’6″ (1.68 m)
Colour: Dark gray or brown on their back, lighter gray on sides and white on the belly. Flippers are dark in colour with a dark stripe that extends to their eyes. There are often a dark chin patch and a dark eye ring.
Key Features:
1) Head Shape: Short, poorly demarcated beak
2) Flipper Shape: Small, oval, and rounded at the tips
3) Dorsal Fin: The medium-size dorsal fin is triangular or slightly falcate and is set at mid body
4) Fluke: Small and curved with a median notch
5) Blow Shape: Make a loud puffing sound when they surface to breathe, only surface briefly

DescriptionPilot Whale

Maximum Size: Male: 21′ (6.3 m); Female: 15’6″ (4.7 m)
Colour: The body is dark gray or black to dark brown. There is a tapering white or light gray streak behind the eye, extending up and back from behind each eye toward the front of the dorsal fin. On the belly a white, anchor-shaped is joined by a narrow strip to a wider light area in the url-genital region.
Key Features:
1) Head Shape: The melon ranges from bulbous to squarish and can protrude beyond the front of the mouth. There is a very short, barely noticable beak, and the mouthline slants up toward the eye
2) Flipper Shape: The flippers are long (about one-quarter of the body length) and tapered
3) Dorsal Fin: The dorsal fin has a characteristic profile: set ahead of midbody, it is long at the base relative to its height, rises at a shallow angle, and is falcate in shape





DescriptionStriped Dolphin

Maximum Size: 8’8″ (2.65 m); Female: 7’10″ (2.4 m)
Colour: Distinct and striking colouration pattern with a complex of bold, thin stripes that extend from the eye to the flippers and another set of stripes down the side of the body to the anal region. The beak, flipper, tail, and back are dark blue/ gray and the central side is white to pinkish. Calves and juveniles may have more muted colourations and patterns.
Key Features:
1) Head Shape: Round melon with a long, defined beak
2) Dorsal Fin: Tall and falcate dorsal fin set mid-body


Baleen Whales

DescriptionBlue Whale

Maximum Size: 98′ (29.8 m)
Colour: Mottled, blue-gray colouration. The underside of the flippers may be lighter in colour or white, while the top is dark. The ventral side of its body is often yellow-green in colour due to microorganisms (cold-water diatoms) the whales graze on.
Key Features:
1) Head Shape: U-shaped, pointed rostrum; flat, U-shaped, with large splashguard before blowholes
2) Flipper Shape: Long, thin, pointed tips
3) Dorsal Fin: Relatively small and triangular, set far back on the body. Appears well after the blowhole when the whale surfaces 4) Blow Shape: Tall columnar blow, approximately 9m high

DescriptionHumpback Whale

Maximum Size: 52 – 56′ (16 – 17 m); males slightly shorter than female
Colour: Body black or dark gray above; white, black, or mottled below. Individuals have a variable amount of white on their pectoral fins and underside of flukes.
Key Features:
1) Head Shape: Flat and U-shaped head; the lower jaw has a variable number of protuberances or ‘tubules’ that appear as bumps
2) Flipper Shape: Extremely long flippers (one-third body length), white ventrally
3) Dorsal Fin: Highly variable, from almost absent to high and falcate, and is often scarred. The dorsal fin is often located on a hump located two-thirds of the way down the body, and is particularly noticeable when the whale arches its back during a dive 4) Blow Shape: Blow often low, rounded, and more bushy than those of other rorquals

DescriptionNorth Atlantic Right Whale

Maximum Size: Longest recorded 56′ (17 m), likely to 60′ (18.3 m); male about 3-5′ (1-1.5 m) shorter than female
Colour: Black colouration with varying amounts of white on the underside.
Key Features:
1) Head Shape: Huge head with callosities
2) Fluke Shape: Wide, black, triangular, with smooth margins. Usually raised during a dive 3) Callosities: The head and rostrum are covered with callosities – raised roughened patches of skin – that usually appear white or cream-coloured because of massive infestations of cyamids (called whale lice)

DescriptionFin Whale

Maximum Size: 79′ (24 m)
Colour: Dark gray above and white or cream-colored below. Most individuals have swirls (called a ‘blaze’) on the right side of the head and a V-shaped chevron across the back behind the head.
Key Features:
1) Head Shape: Flat head with the right lower jaw white
2) Dorsal Fin: Sharp, variably shaped dorsal fin, often pointed or falcate. Blowholes surface briefly before dorsal fin emerges
3) Blow Shape: Tall, columnar blow approximately 5m tall

 


DescriptionMinke Whale

Maximum Size: Male: 32′ (9.8 m); Female: 35′ (10.7 m)
Colour: Black or dark gray above, often with a gray chevron crossing the back behind the head, and white underneath. A white band across the flippers is diagnostic of the species.
Key Features:
1) Head Shape: Sharply pointed snout, straight mouthline, and a long ridge along the head
2) Flipper Shape: Flippers are narrow and have pointed tips. White band on flippers
3) Dorsal Fin: Falcate dorsal fin located two-thirds of the way down their back, appears simultaneously with the blowholes when they surface
4) Blow Shape: Small bushy blow, usually not visible

 


DescriptionSei Whale

Maximum Size: 64′ (19.5 m); male slightly shorter than female
Colour: Back and sides are dark grey or bluish-gray in colour, while the ventral surface and throat grooves are grayish-white. Sometimes have subtle mottling on the body.
Key Features:
1) Head Shape: Flat, U-shaped. A single longitudinal ridge forms the midline on top of the Sei Whale’s head
2) Dorsal Fin: Large, prominent, falcate dorsal fin located two-thirds of the way down the body and is usually visible when blowholes surface

Toothed Whales

DescriptionBeluga Whale

Maximum Size: Male: 14-16′ (4.2-4.9 m); Female: 13-14′ (3.9-4.3 m)
Colour: White colouration throughout for adults, calves are dark gray or brown in colour. During the summer, colouration is more yellow.
Key Features:
1) Head Shape: Short broad beak with cleft upper lip; rounded, malleable melon and flexible neck
2) Flipper Shape: Paddle-shaped
3) Dorsal Fin: Lack of dorsal fin, have a dorsal ridge instead
4) Blow Shape: Low and hardly visible

 


DescriptionNorthern Bottlenose Whale

Maximum Size: Male: 32′ (9.8 m); Female: 29′ (8.7 m)
Colour: Chocolate brown in young animals, to light brown in older animals, to yellowish brown (with whitish beaks and heads)
Key Features:
1) Head Shape: Bluff melon, which is white on adult males with callosities on head
2) Flipper Shape: Small and rounded at the tips and fit into depressions on the side (‘flipper pockets’)
3) Dorsal Fin: The dorsal fin is up to about 30 cm high and is situated well behind the middle of the back. It is falcate and usually pointed at the tip
4) Fluke Shape: Broad flukes with a concave, trailing edges and no notch
5) Blow Shape: Small, bushy blows every 30 – 40 seconds that are about 1 m tall and visible from a significant distance
6) Teeth: There are two teeth at the tip of the lower jaw. They erupt only in adult males and are oriented slightly forward. Stalked barnacles, of a species also common on ships and driftwood, sometimes attach to the teeth

DescriptionSowerby’s Whale

Maximum Size: 4.4 – 5.5 m
Colour: Majority of the body has a charcoal gray colouration with pale underside. Lower jaw is usually light gray or white. Calves are darker than adults
Key Features:
1) Head Shape: Huge bulge on the forehead
2) Flipper Shape: Curved and long compared to other beaked whales
3) Dorsal Fin: Small and curved dorsal fin with rounded tip, located far down the back
4) Teeth: Males have a pair of visible teeth that erupt from the jaw; females and juveniles have teeth that remain hidden beneath the gum tissue

DescriptionCuvier’s-Beaked Whale

Maximum Size: Male: 6.9 m; Female: 5.5 m
Colour: Variation in colour that ranges from dark gray to reddish-brown, with a paler counter-shaded underside. The red-brown colour thought to be caused by diatoms. There is a whitish colouration on the face and dark-coloured patch around the eye. Older individuals are paler.
Key Features:
1) Head Shape: Sloping, concave-shape with no obvious melon and a short beak with a curved mouthline
2) Flipper Shape: Small and fold into a slight depression on the lower side of the body
3) Dorsal Fin: Curved and falcate
4) Blow Shape: Small blow (1m) tall, angled slightly forward and to the left

DescriptionSperm Whale

Maximum Size: Male: 60′ (18.3 m); Female: More than 36′ (11 m)
Colour: Even dark gray but may appear brown in bright sunlight. The upper lips and lingual portion of the lower jaw are white, and there are often irregular whitish blotches on the belly and flanks
Key Features:
1) Head Shape: A disproportionately large head. The lower jaw is narrow and rod-like, with the mouth underslung and barely visible when viewed from the side
2) Flipper Shape: Short and broad with rounded tips
3) Dorsal Fin: Dorsal hump that is low, thick, and rounded or obtuse. A roughened, callous-like patch occurs on the dorsal fin of most females (about 75%) and some immature males (about 30%), but never on adult males. Dorsal ridges run longitudinally in the posterior part of their backs
4) Blow Shape: Somewhat bushy blow angled forward and left from front of head.

 


DescriptionTrue’s-Beaked Whale

Maximum Size: Male: 5.3 m; Female: 5.4 m
Colour: Their colouration varies from gray to brown on the dorsal side with a paler ventral side. The colouration in the southern hemisphere is different, having more white colouration on their back, tailstock, and underside. Mature males have extensive linear scarring covering the body.
Key Features:
1) Head Shape: Rounded, sloping melon
2) Dorsal Fin: Small, wide-based, slightly falcate dorsal fin located far down the back (about two-thirds)
3) Teeth: Adult males have a pair of teeth visible on the tip of the lower jaw