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Which Whale Species?
Contributed by Mike Hawe and Winston Pup, ACS Volunteers

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Mike (top) and Winston (bottom)

How do we tell the different whales apart when we're on the shore looking through binoculars? Their black-and-white coloring, dorsal fin and single blowhole make Orcas fairly easy. But sometimes, in poor light, Risso dolphins can be mistaken for Orcas. Fin Whales may give us a challenge too.

How can we tell the Fin Whales from the Gray Whales?

  • A Gray Whale has a short, bushy, heart-shaped blow (8-13 feet high). Fin Whales have a much taller (13-20 ft. high) blow that's shaped like a cone.
  • Gray Whales have no dorsal fin. Instead they have a series of dorsal bumps, ridges or knuckles. A Fin Whale has a small dorsal fin on its back. It very rarely shows its flukes (tail) when diving.

    Dorsal Bumps or Knuckles
    Photo Jean Louis
  • Grays usually swim around 5 mph, but Fin Whales are sometimes referred to as the "Greyhounds" of the seas because they can reach speeds up to 20 mph. That's about twice the maximum speed (10 mph) of a Gray whale.
  • Gray whales are stocky, shorter (40-45 ft. long) whales. They are mottled gray in color, with white/gray patches of barnacles and yellowish lice infestations. Fin Whales are slender, longer (70-80 ft.) whales with dark-gray to brownish-black skin.

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How do you know it's an Orca?
Photo: Michael H. Smith,
Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (CINMS)


How do you know it's a Fin?

How do you know it's a Gray?


Try This! Graphic Organizer

  • Make a 3-column chart to list the differences between Fin, Orca, and Gray Whales. Draw illustrations of each whale. Add new facts as you learn them.

National Science Education Standards

  • The characteristics of an organism can be described in terms of a combination of traits.

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