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Dolphins and other Toothed Whales

Toothed Whales

While the goal of Hornblower’s Whale & Dolphin Watching Adventure Cruises is to spot one or more baleen whale species, such as the gray whale or blue whale, guests also enjoy watching the dolphins that are spotted on most cruises along with rare sightings of other toothed whales.

Dolphins and other toothed whales are cetaceans— a group of marine mammals that includes all dolphins, porpoises, and whales. All cetaceans have a single or double blowhole (nostril/s) on top of their head, 2 front flippers, and tail flukes that they move up and down to swim through the water. 

Toothed whales are grouped together in Odontoceti, which includes oceanic dolphins, sperm whales, pygmy and dwarf sperm whales, porpoises, beaked whales, beluga whales and narwhals, and river dolphins. Unlike baleen whales, toothed whales have teeth that they use for catching prey and also have a single rather than a double blowhole. Additionally, all toothed whales echolocate (emit pulses of high frequency clicks and listen for the echoes as they bounce off an animal or object) to hunt or navigate in low light or murky conditions.

Several species of oceanic dolphins are the most common type of toothed whale that is seen in San Diego’s coastal waters although rare sightings of other dolphins, like killer whales, or other toothed whales, such as sperm whales, also occur. 

Oceanic Dolphins (Family Delphinidae)

Oceanic dolphins have interlocking, cone-shaped teeth and most have a falcate (curved-back) dorsal (back) fin. Below are some of the dolphin species you may see during a Hornblower whale watch cruise.

 

common dolphin

Common Dolphin
Delphinus delphis  (short-beaked) & Delphinus capensis (long-beaked)

DESCRIPTION:
These beautiful dolphins are mostly gray with a white belly and a distinctive tan and light gray hourglass pattern on each side. These species also have the typical falcate dorsal fin characteristic of most oceanic dolphin species and a prominent beak. Adults reach lengths of 7.5 to 8.5 feet  (2.3–2.6 meters) and weigh up to 300 pounds (136 kilograms). Males are usually larger than females. 

RANGE & HABITAT:
Common dolphins range throughout tropical and temperate (seasonally cold) waters worldwide.

DIET:
Common dolphins are carnivores—they only eat meat. They actively prey on a variety of small, schooling fishes and squid.

REPRODUCTION:
Females give birth to a single calf (baby), which is nursed for about a year.

BEHAVIOR:
Common dolphins are usually found in herds of 100 or more individuals. They are occasionally seen in large mega-herds of thousands of individuals. These active and acrobatic dolphins often porpoise when traveling at high speeds, leap high out of the water, and ride the bow wake or stern wake of boats. Common dolphins often seen in mixed-species feeding groups that include other dolphins, baleen whales, or California sea lions.

PREDATORS:
Common dolphins are preyed on by large sharks, particularly great white sharks, and orcas/ killer whales.

DID YOU KNOW?
There are two species of common dolphins: the short-beaked common dolphin and the long-beaked common dolphin. The short-beaked common dolphin has a more rounded melon (forehead) while the long-beaked has a flatter melon. Short-beaked are usually found offshore while long-beaked common dolphins tend to be found in coastal waters and are the species most often seen off San Diego’s coast.

The aptly named common dolphin is the most commonly spotted type of dolphin and is seen on nearly every Hornblower whale watch cruise.

Common dolphins and other cetaceans sleep in one-hemisphere of their brain at a time.

Common Bottlenose Dolphin
Tursiops truncatus

DESCRIPTION:
The bottlenose dolphin is dark to light gray with a light ventral (belly) coloration. It is named for named for its prominent “bottlenose” or beak. Adults reach lengths of 8 to 12 feet  (2.5–3.8 meters) and weigh up to 1,430 pounds (650 kilograms). Males are usually larger than females. 

RANGE & HABITAT:
Bottlenose dolphins range throughout tropical and temperate (seasonally cold) waters worldwide.

DIET:
Bottlenose dolphins are carnivores—they only eat meat. They actively prey on a variety of fishes, squid, and crustaceans.

REPRODUCTION:
Females give birth to a single calf (baby), which is nursed for about a year.

BEHAVIOR:
Bottlenose dolphins are often seen in fluid social groups of less than 20 to 100 individuals. These active and acrobatic dolphins often porpoise when traveling at high speeds, somersault, leap high out of the water, and ride the bow or stern wakes of boats.

PREDATORS:
Bottlenose dolphins are preyed on by large sharks, especially great white sharks, tiger sharks, and great white sharks, Orcas/ killer whales may also prey on bottlenose dolphins.

DID YOU KNOW?
There are two ecotypes (forms) of bottlenose dolphins; coastal and offshore. The coastal ecotype is much smaller and found along shallow coastal waters and in harbors, bays (including San Diego Bay).

Bottlenose dolphins are the most well-known dolphin species. They are also the most common kind of dolphin seen in aquariums and zoos around the world. They are seen on many of the whale watch cruises.

Bottlenose dolphins and most other dolphin species porpoise (leap clear of the water) when traveling at high speeds. However, Porpoises (Family Phocoenidae) do not porpoise.

 

Pacific white-sided dolphin

Pacific White-sided Dolphin
Lagenorhynchus obliquidens

DESCRIPTION:
The Pacific white-sided dolphin is best identified by its large, hooked dorsal fin that is bicolored black and white. This stunning dolphin has a short beak and is stunningly patterned in shades of black, gray, and white. Adults reach lengths of 7 to 8 feet  (2–2.4 meters) and weigh up to 300 to 441 pounds (150–200 kilograms). Males are usually larger than females. 

RANGE & HABITAT:
Pacific white-sided dolphins range throughout temperate (seasonally cold), coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean.

DIET:
These dolphins are carnivores—they only eat meat. They actively prey on a variety of small schooling fishes and squid. Scientists believe that Pacific white-sided dolphins mainly hunt for prey at night.

REPRODUCTION:
Females give birth to a single calf (baby), which is nursed for about a year.

BEHAVIOR:
These acrobatic dolphins are often seen bowriding, breaching, leaping, porpoising, and somersaulting. Pacific white-sided dolphins are found in groups of 10 to a few hundred individuals. More rarely, they are found in large herds of a couple thousand. These dolphins are often seen near or mixed-in with groups of other dolphins, baleen whales, or California sea lions.

PREDATORS:
Pacific white-sided dolphins are preyed on by large sharks, particularly great white sharks, and orcas/ killer whales.

DID YOU KNOW?

Dolphins of the scientific genus Lagenorhynchus are often called “Lags”.

Pacific white-sided dolphins are more commonly seen off the southern California coast from November through April.

 

Risso's dolphin

Risso’s Dolphin
Grampus griseus

DESCRIPTION:
These relatively large dolphins are gray with a white, anchor-like marking on their chest to stomach region. The melon (forehead) is rounded with a distinct central crease and no discernible beak. Adults usually have extensive white scarring all over their body from raking (scratching) from other Risso’s dolphin’s teeth and from the beaks and tentacles of squid prey. Older adults are often almost-completely white from this scarring. Adults reach lengths of 10 to 12.5 feet  (3–3.8 meters) and weigh 650 to 1,100 pounds (300–500 kilograms).

RANGE & HABITAT:
Risso’s dolphins range throughout tropical and temperate (seasonally cold) waters worldwide, They tend to be found in deeper, cooler offshore waters, but occasionally come in closer to shore. Males and females grow to about the same size.

DIET:
These dolphins are carnivores—they only eat meat. Risso’s dolphins mostly prey on squid, cuttlefish, and octopuses, but occasionally eat fishes as well.

REPRODUCTION:
Females give birth to a single calf (baby).

BEHAVIOR:
Risso’s dolphins are typically found in smaller groups of a 3 to 30 dolphins although they occasionally form temporary groups of several thousand. These active dolphins often breach, spy hop, and slap their flippers or flukes on the water’s surface. While they don’t often bowride, Risso’s dolphins sometimes surf waves or the stern wakes of boats.

DID YOU KNOW?

Unlike other dolphins, Risso’s dolphins only have up to 7 pairs of teeth in their lower jaw and none in their upper jaw.

Risso’s dolphins can dive to more than 1,000 feet (300 m) for up to 30 minutes at a time when hunting squid or other prey.

 

Orca/ Killer Whale
Orcinus orca

DESCRIPTION:
These large dolphins are unmistakable with their striking black-and-white coloration. Adults reach lengths of 20 to 30 feet  or more (6–9 meters) and weigh up to 4 to 9 tons (3,629–8,165 kilograms). Males are substantially larger than females and tend to have a taller, more triangular dorsal fin. 

RANGE & HABITAT:
Killer whales are found in oceans worldwide. They tend to be more common in productive, colder waters.

DIET:
Killer whales are carnivores—they only eat meat. Depending on their ecotype (form), killer whales actively hunt a variety of prey including fishes (including sharks and rays), squid, seabirds (including penguins), and marine mammals such as seals and sea lions, other toothed whales including dolphins, and even large baleen whales.

REPRODUCTION:
Females give birth to a single calf (baby), which is nursed for 1 to 2 years.

BEHAVIOR:
Killer whales are highly social animals living in stable social groups called pods. At least some pods, such as the well-studied resident killer whales in the Pacific Northwest, are made up of an adult female, called a matriarch, and her offspring. In these pods, the both male and female offspring stay with their mother’s pod their entire life.

Killer whales are often seen fluking, spyhopping, lobtailing, flipper slapping and breaching. Like many dolphins, they also porpoise at high speeds and ride the bow or stern wakes of boats.

PREDATORS:
Killer whales are apex or top predators. They have no natural predators.

DID YOU KNOW?
There are at least 10 ecotypes of killer whales. These ecotypes vary greatly in physical size, range, group size, diet, and even dialect/vocalizations.

Killer whales are seldom seen in San Diego waters. The ecotypes most commonly spotted are Offshores and Eastern Tropical Pacific killer whales. While many killer whales are very specific in their diet, the two ecotypes spotted off our coast probably have a more varied diet an eat a variety of large and small fishes, squid, and dolphins, whales, seals, and sea lions.

The black and white coloration of a killer whale is a type of camouflage called counter-shading. The patches of black and white help break up the whale’s body shape underwater and hide them from prey.

The killer whale is the largest dolphin species!

 

False Killer Whales

 False Killer Whale
Pseudorca crassidens

DESCRIPTION:
False killer whales are mostly black with a bulbous forehead and a prominent, falcate (curved-back) dorsal fin, narrow pointed flippers, and a pale grayish patch in the throat and chest region. Adults grow to lengths of 15 to 20 feet (4.5–6 m) and weigh about 1,500 to 2,000 pounds (700–907 kg). Like most toothed whales, males grow larger than females.

RANGE & HABITAT:
False killer whales are found in temperate and tropical oceans worldwide. They tend to be more common in deep water areas of the tropics and are rarely spotted in San Diego waters..

DIET:
False killer whales are carnivores—they only eat meat. They mostly eat fishes and squids.

REPRODUCTION:
Females give birth to a single calf (baby), which is nursed for 1 to 2 years.

BEHAVIOR:
False killer whales are highly social animals living in stable social groups called pods. Pods are usually composed of 10 to 30 individuals, although larger pods of up to 100 animals are occasionally seen.

PREDATORS:
Killer whales are the only natural predator of the false killer whales, although predation on false killer whales is much rarer than for smaller dolphins species.

DID YOU KNOW?
False killer whales are members of the oceanic dolphin family. They are rarely seen in San Diego’s coastal waters.

False killer whales along with pilot whales, melon-headed whales, and killer whales are all often referred to as “blackfish”.

Like killer whales, false killer whales will attack and kill other marine mammals including smaller dolphins and seals and sea lions.

In some areas, false killer whales are know to take fish off longlines. They are hunted in drive fisheries in Japan. These dolphins are also occasionally involved in mass strandings.

 

Short-finned Pilot Whale
Globicephala macrorhynchus

DESCRIPTION:
Pilot whales are mostly black with a bulbous forehead, an indistinct beak, a prominent, falcate (curved-back) dorsal fin that is long at the base, sickle-shaped flippers, and a grayish anchor-shaped patch in the chest region. The short-finned pilot whale has shorter pectoral flippers that the long-finned species and also has a pale, grayish saddle-patch behind the dorsal fin,. Adults grow to lengths of 12 to 24 feet (3.7–7.3 m) and weigh up to 2,200 to 6,600 pounds (1,000–3,000 kg). Like most toothed whales, males grow substantially larger than females.

RANGE & HABITAT:
Short-finned pilot whales are found in deeper waters of sub-tropical and tropical oceans worldwide. A second species, the long-finned pilot whale, is not found off the Pacific Coast of North America and instead inhabits temperate (cooler) waters in other regions of the world’s oceans.

DIET:
Pilot whales are carnivores—they only eat meat. They mostly eat squid, but also occasionally dine on octopuses, cuttlefish, and small fishes.

REPRODUCTION:
Females give birth to a single calf (baby), which is nursed for 2 to 5 years, which is a very long time for dolphins.

BEHAVIOR:
Pilot whales are highly social animals living in stable social groups called pods. Pods are usually composed of 20 to 90 individuals of related females and their offspring.

Pilot whales often fluke before a dive and also spyhop, lobtail, and porpoise at high speeds, although they rarely breach or ride the bow or stern wakes of boats.

PREDATORS:
Killer whales are the only natural predator of the pilot whales,

DID YOU KNOW?
Pilot whales are members of the oceanic dolphin family. They are rarely seen in San Diego’s coastal waters.

Pilot whales along with false-killer whales, melon-headed whales, and killer whales are all often referred to as “blackfish”.

Due to their highly social nature, pilot whales are occasionally involved in mass strandings.

Pilot whales are still hunted in drive fisheries in several regions.

 

Other Toothed Whales:
Sperm Whale (Family Physeteridae)

sperm whaleSperm Whale
Physeter macrocephalus

DESCRIPTION:
A sperm whale is mostly black to dark brown with a large, rectangular head (up to 1/3 of the body length), a low and rounded dorsal fin, and a distinctive blowhole (and spout) angled forward and to the left. The skin tends to be wrinkled behind the head. Adult females grow to lengths of up to 41 feet (12.5 m) and weigh up to 15 tons (13,607 kg). Like most toothed whales, adult males (bulls) grow substantially larger than females, reaching lengths of more than to 62 feet (19 m) and weighing up to 62 tons (57,000 kg).

RANGE & HABITAT:
Sperm whales are found in deeper waters of oceans worldwide. Female-based pods tend to be found in tropical to sub-tropical waters while juvenile males and bulls travel into colder waters. Bulls have even been sighted in waters on the edge of pack ice in both arctic and antarctic waters.

DIET:
Sperm whales are carnivores—they only eat meat. They mostly eat large squid, but also occasionally dine on octopuses and fishes (including sharks and skates).

REPRODUCTION:
Females give birth to a single calf (baby), which is nursed for up to 3 years.

BEHAVIOR:
Sperm whales are highly social animals living in stable social groups called pods. Most pods are usually composed of 20 to 50 or more individuals including females and their offspring. Young males often form smaller “bachelor” pods and bulls are often solitary except for short-term associations with female-based pods during the spring and summer mating season.

Sperm whales often rest at the surface in a behavior called “logging” to replenish their oxygen stores in between dives. Dines are typically last about 35 minutes and are often to about 1,312 feet (400 m). Sperm whales fluke right before a dive and also spyhop, lobtail, and breach when at the surface.

PREDATORS:
Killer whales are the only natural predator of sperm whales. Healthy adults are too large to attack, but sperm whale pod members will actively gather in a circle with calves in the center to protect them during killer whale attacks.

DID YOU KNOW?
Sperm whales are the largest toothed whales. Adult males reach the same lengths as many of the mid-sized baleen whales including gray and humpback whales.

Sperm whales are one of the deepest diving mammals. Dives can last for up to 2 hours and have been recorded to a depth of 10,499 feet (3,200 meters) or nearly 2 miles deep. Remarkable for an animal that needs to breather air!

Sperm whales have very narrow lower jaws with 18 to 26 pairs of large, cone-shaped teeth that fit into sockets in the upper jaw. They rarely have any teeth in their upper jaw.