What kinds of dolphins can you find in the United States?
I don’t think there is anything better than watching dolphins! Their playful, gregarious nature makes them one of the most beloved animals in the world.
Below, you will find pictures and descriptions of the kinds of dolphins in the United States. I’ve also included RANGE MAPS and fun facts about each species. And keep reading to the end of the article for the differences between Dolphins and Porpoises!
Although there are tons of interesting facts about dolphins, I kept each description brief to cover all the species. So, you may want to consider purchasing the book below if you want more information or need help with additional identification.
Here are the 16 DOLPHINS That Can Be Found in the United States!
- I only included species that have “dolphin” or “porpoise” in their common name. For example, a Killer Whale (Orca) is in the dolphin family, but they are not included below. To see the types of WHALES that live in the United States, CLICK HERE.
#1. White-beaked Dolphin
- Lagenorhynchus albirostris
- 7.8 to 10.2 feet (2.4 to 3.1 meters) long, with a streamlined shape.
- The head and back are dark gray to black, with light gray to white patches on the sides, belly, and tail.
- The beak, or rostrum, is pale gray or white.
White-beaked Dolphins prefer VERY cold water. They live in the northern Atlantic Ocean in summer but often move closer to shore to avoid ice during winter. Observers often spot them around Massachusetts and Cape Cod, but they can also be found in sub-polar waters.
These dolphins are commonly known as “squid hounds” among fishermen. This is because they love to hunt squid and octopuses and congregate where they are plentiful! White-beaked Dolphins also work together to catch fast-swimming schooling fish such as herring, haddock, and cod.
White-beaked Dolphins generally live in groups of 5 to 30 dolphins, called pods. However, they are very social animals and can occasionally be spotted traveling in pods of more than a thousand. Some lucky observers have even seen them socializing and cooperating with other marine mammals, including humpback whales, sei whales, and other species of dolphins.
They’re fast and powerful swimmers and love to jump and surf. Look for them swimming in the bow waves of large ships and even playing in the wake of swimming whales. They are confident and curious and often approach boats.
#2. Atlantic White-sided Dolphin
- Lagenorhynchus acutus
- 8 to 9 feet (2.4 to 2.7 meters) long, slender, and streamlined with short, pointed rostrums (noses).
- Dark gray on the back from nose tip to tail, with white, cream, and gray patches along the sides.
- Their bellies are pale gray.
Look for Atlantic White-sided Dolphins in the United States along the northern Atlantic coast.
Atlantic White-sided Dolphins were historically considered a pelagic species, meaning they spent much of their time far out to sea. However, in the 1970s, a decrease in the herring population appears to have changed their habitat preferences. As a result, these dolphins now appear more frequently in shallower coastal waters, where sand lance fish are abundant.
The best time to observe this species near the shore is during the summer months. In the winter, the dolphins travel further south and far from the coast.
Atlantic White-sided Dolphins are extremely agile and energetic swimmers. They can reach speeds of up to 27 miles per hour (43 kilometers per hour)! These dolphins are often seen bounding across the water in groups of 5 to 50.
They’re also highly social and can work with other animals to hunt. For example, Atlantic White-sided Dolphins cooperate with other dolphins and whales to encircle and trap schooling fish such as mackerel, herring, and sand lance. Whale-watchers often spot them feeding alongside humpback and fin whales.
The lifespan of Atlantic White-sided Dolphins can exceed 27 years. Females are pregnant for around one year, and summer is the most common season for calves to be born. Pods are organized by age and family group. For example, juveniles form their own pods, separate from mothers and calves.
#3. Pacific White-sided Dolphin
- Lagenorhynchus obliquidens
- 5.5 to 8 feet (1.7 to 2.4 meters) long, with a short, torpedo-like shape.
- Pale bellies and light gray patches on the sides.
- The rostrum (nose) and back are dark gray.
Look for Pacific White-sided Dolphins in the United States in the temperate waters of the northern Pacific Ocean. This species is pelagic, meaning you’re unlikely to see them close to the shore and will need a boat to observe them.
These dolphins are playful and acrobatic, often putting on a show for humans on dolphin-watching excursions. They race in the bow waves of ships and often break the water’s surface to spin in the air. They are incredibly fast and can reach speeds of 35 miles per hour!
You’ll likely see these dolphins working cooperatively to hunt schooling fish like capelin and herring. They need to eat a lot of food, consuming around 20 pounds (9 kg) of fish per day. Pacific White-sided Dolphins live in pods of up to 50 individuals.
Despite their relatively small core pods, they can frequently be seen gathered together in much larger numbers when food is abundant. These huge groups are made up of thousands of dolphins called “super pods.”
#4. Fraser’s Dolphin
- Lagenodelphis hosei
- 6 to 9 feet (1.8 to 2.7 meters) long, with a blunt face shape and short nose.
- Although streamlined, they are compact and stocky compared to other dolphins.
- The color pattern is unique, with a pale beige or pinkish belly, dark bands on the sides, and light backs.
Look for these dolphins in the United States in the tropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.
Fraser’s Dolphins are pelagic, meaning they prefer deeper water away from the coastline. So, you must travel far out in a boat to view this species. They prefer water at least 3,000 feet (915 meters) deep and can easily dive up to 2,000 feet (600 meters) while hunting!
These dolphins are highly active and can be seen swimming in large groups. However, Fraser’s Dolphins tend to be more reserved and elusive than other dolphin species, making them hard to spot.
This species was first described in 1956 from a washed-up skull, and it wasn’t until 1970 that a living dolphin was observed. However, those lucky enough to see them describe the unusually forceful, splashy way they swim and jump.
#5. Northern Right Whale Dolphin
- Lissodelphis borealis
- 6.5 to 10 feet (2 to 3 meters) long, slender and willowy in shape.
- Their missing dorsal fin makes them look even thinner.
- This species is nearly all black with no markings, except for the white lollipop-shaped patch on the belly.
You can see the Northern Right Whale Dolphin off the coast of the western United States. They prefer the cooler waters along the edge of the continental shelf and are unlikely to be spotted near the shore. However, they may venture closer to land when deep water is available. For example, look for this species in areas where underwater canyons run near the coastline.
Northern Right Whale Dolphins are often confused with other animals, either because of their name or the way they look. While reading about it, it’s easy to confuse this dolphin with the much larger North Pacific Right Whale, which inhabits much of the same area. While observing, people often mistake them for sea lions because of their sleek surfacing style and finless, dark appearance.
Despite their stealthy movements, Northern Right Whale Dolphins can be acrobatic when they want to! They can launch themselves into breaches over 20 feet (6 meters) high, and love to side-slap the water and belly-flop loudly.
If you find a pod, it’s likely to contain more than one species. For example, Northern Right Whale Dolphins commonly socialize with Risso’s dolphins and Pacific White-sided Dolphins. They’ve even been known to travel in super-pods of up to 3,000 individuals!
#6. Pantropical Spotted Dolphin
- Stenella attenuata
- 6 to 7 feet (1.8 to 2.1 meters) long, small, slender, and lightweight. They are slimmer due to their warmer habitat.
- The long, thin rostrum (nose) is different from most other dolphins.
- They have light bellies and dark backs with a wavy pattern of spots on the sides.
Look for Pantropical Spotted Dolphins in warm water in the United States.
Generally, this species is curious and confident and will often approach boats to bow ride. Pantropical Spotted Dolphins also love to perform acrobatics. They are highly social and can form huge pods. You’ll commonly spot them interacting and traveling with other dolphin species.
Though the species is not threatened, some populations have suffered terribly as a result of human activity. For example, dolphins are killed in vast numbers due to being caught in fishing nets and by poachers who kill the dolphins on purpose.
Throughout the 1960s, millions of dolphins were killed to increase the tuna population available for humans to catch. Sadly, these dolphins are also hunted for human consumption.
#7. Atlantic Spotted Dolphin
- Stenella frontalis
- 5 to 5.7 feet (1.5 to 1.7 meters) long, with stocky torsos and rounded bodies. They have large pectoral and dorsal fins.
- Their coloring is generally paler on the belly and dark gray on the back, with distinct spotting all over.
Look for the Atlantic Spotted Dolphin in the United States in the deep water of the Atlantic Ocean.
Though Atlantic Spotted Dolphins can be found in deep water, they are very comfortable in the shallow waters nearer the coast and continental shelf. They are playful and inquisitive and will often approach boats and people. Unfortunately, this behavior can put them at risk of being harassed or harmed by dolphin watchers or unhappy fishermen.
These dolphins are very sociable and playful and often interact with other marine mammals. However, their core pods are relatively small and usually comprised of less than 50 individuals. For groups closer to the shore, that number drops to as low as five dolphins in a pod.
Thanks to their tendency to live and hunt in shallower waters, these dolphins eat a wide range of invertebrates and fish. In addition, they can use echolocation to help them scour the sand and discover tasty meals below the surface.
#8. Spinner Dolphin
- Stenella longirostris
- 4 to 7 feet (1.2 to 2.1 meters) long, slender and streamlined, with a very narrow rostrum (nose).
- The coloring of Spinner Dolphins is beautiful: they have a pale gray belly, a wavy line of light gray on the sides, and patches of dark gray on the back.
Spinner Dolphins can be found in the United States in warm water. Look for them on the east coast through the Gulf of Mexico and down to the Hawaiian Islands.
Because Spinner Dolphins have very predictable behavior patterns, they are easy to observe. During the day, they rest in groups near the coast, in shallow, protected bays. Unfortunately, this predictability has led to severe harassment by unscrupulous dolphin-watching tour companies, especially in the Hawaiian Islands.
Harassment disturbs the resting dolphins and causes them to perform impressive aerial displays. Legal action has been taken against unethical dolphin-watchers in Hawaii, but more reform is needed to protect these populations fully.
Spinner Dolphins are a joy to see in the ocean when viewed ethically. They are extremely acrobatic, confident, and showy when transitioning from their rest phase to their hunting time. It’s common to observe them leaping high into the air and performing a complex spinning maneuver as they fall back toward the water.
Their feeding habits are also quite different from some other dolphins. As night falls, they move from their shallow resting spots in sunny bays out into the deeper ocean. They catch fish and squid that migrate closer to the surface at night.
#9. Striped Dolphin
- Stenella coeruleoalba
- 8 to 9 feet (2.4 to 2.7 meters) long with a large and powerful build, small fins, and long, slender rostrums (noses).
- Their striking color pattern makes them easy to identify. Their pale bellies and dark gray backs are highlighted by a defined, bold black stripe that runs from the rostrum, splits over the eye, and continues down the sides.
Striped Dolphins are an extremely adaptable and widespread species. You can see these dolphins in temperate, tropical, and subtropical seas. However, they prefer deep water and are usually far from shore. You may spot them near the coast if there are underwater canyons or trenches to provide a deeper habitat.
They form close social bonds with their pods, usually made up of 25 to 100 individuals. They occasionally form super pods, but not as often as other dolphins in the United States. Striped Dolphins rarely interact with other dolphin species or whales.
Striped Dolphins are very fast, agile, and active swimmers. They often leap high in the air and dive for prey as deep as 2,300 feet (700 meters).
#10. Clymene Dolphin
- Stenella clymene
- 6 to 6.5 feet (1.8 to 2 meters) long with a stocky, thick build. They have short rostrums (noses) and a curved dorsal fin.
- Dark gray overall coloring is interrupted with a small white patch on the belly.
Clymene Dolphins live in the warm water of the southern Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.
This species is very elusive, and little is known about them. This is partly because they are an offshore, oceanic species and prefer a water depth of over 16,500 feet (5000 meters).
In addition, their appearance is easily confused with other dolphin species that inhabit the same water. As a result, observers find it difficult to record their behavior accurately. They perform aerial displays like other dolphins, leaping out of the air and rotating as they fall.
Some research suggests that Clymene Dolphins dive to feed on small fish and squid, hunting mostly at night. However, this is one of the most mysterious dolphin species in the United States, and very little is known about them.
#11. Long-beaked Common Dolphin
- Delphinus capensis
- 6 to 8.5 feet (1.8 to 2.6 meters) long with a streamlined build, long fins, and wide tail.
- The color pattern of common dolphins is distinct, with yellowish-tan and gray markings that form an hourglass pattern on the sides. The belly is pale gray or white, and the rest of the body is dark gray.
Long-beaked Common Dolphins inhabit warm water near the coast in temperate, subtropical, and tropical seas. They hunt in fairly shallow water, so they’re easier to observe than other dolphins in the United States. This species is great at working together to round up schools of fish such as sardines and anchovies.
They’re also agile and acrobatic swimmers. Dolphin-watchers often find them at the bows of ships, leaping and breaching into the waves.
Long-beaked Common Dolphins can live for up to 40 years. They are usually pregnant for around 11 months and give birth during the spring and early summer.
#12. Short-beaked Common Dolphin
- Delphinus delphis
- 6 feet (1.8 meters) long, stocky, and generally a small species.
- The color pattern of common dolphins is distinct, with yellowish-tan and gray markings that form an hourglass pattern on the sides. The belly is pale gray or white, and the rest of the body is dark gray.
This species is one of the most common dolphins in the United States!
Short-beaked Common Dolphins are highly adaptable and abundant. They inhabit a wide variety of environments, from tropical seas to cool temperate waters. However, they primarily live offshore, from the continental shelf and beyond to deeper waters. This habitat preference is slightly different from their long-beaked relatives.
Short-beaked Common Dolphins are gregarious and usually observed in huge pods of hundreds of dolphins. However, they can occasionally form super pods of up to 10,000 individuals!
They are an active and playful species that engages in breaching, bowing, and other aerial displays. They’re well-known for their acrobatic somersaults, flipping head-over-tail in the air.
Short-beaked Common Dolphins are also very social and confident around large whales and boats. You’re likely to observe them bow riding and wake surfing on both ships and whales. In addition, they are often seen with pilot whales, spinner dolphins, and seabirds.
#13. Common Bottlenose Dolphin
- Tursiops truncatus
- 6 to 13 feet (1.8 to 4 meters) long with a powerful, curved body and stocky build.
- The belly is pale gray to buff, and the back is light or dark gray, depending on the temperature of their habitat. Cooler-water individuals tend to be darker.
Bottlenose Dolphins are the best-known dolphin in the United States!
They can be found in a wide range of environments. Some populations live far offshore in colder waters, but many confidently navigate their way into harbors, bays, and estuaries around the coastline.
Because of their boisterous and confident natures, coastal populations of Bottlenose Dolphins are easy to observe as they approach boats and beaches. They love to bow-ride and are playful and acrobatic. In addition, these dolphins are very social with many other creatures, including whales.
This species forms fairly small pods, usually with less than 20 individuals. Sometimes, lone Bottlenose Dolphins can also be seen traveling and hunting. The pods can break apart and come back together as dolphins travel, mate, and form family units. Males often break away from their mother’s group and form pairs as they seek out new females.
The nature of inshore Bottlenose Dolphins has made them extremely easy to observe and study. Their adaptability to new environments and shallow water, as well as their social and adventurous personalities, has led to them being kept very successfully in captivity. As a result, researchers have discovered much more about Bottlenose Dolphins’ ecology, morphology, and behavior than any other species.
#14. Rough-toothed Dolphin
- Steno bredanensis
- 8.5 feet (2.6 meters) long, with a narrow, streamlined build. Their dorsal fins are tall and curved and they have long rostrums (noses).
- They’re dark overall with white bellies and a white spot on the tip of the nose.
Rough-toothed Dolphins prefer warmer water in the United States. However, they’re pelagic, so they live away from the coast in water over 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) deep.
They are also far less playful, agile, and showy than many other dolphin species. Instead, they use their energy for speed, surfacing with a subtle skimming movement.
These dolphins live in small pods of less than 20 individuals. In some populations, the average pod size is as small as three. However, they are very social animals and are often seen interacting with other dolphins and whales.
Rough-toothed Dolphins eat fish and squid as other dolphins do but are also highly skilled at hunting larger fish. Research suggests that they could be specialized hunters of mahi-mahi or “dolphin fish.”
#15. Harbor Porpoise
- Phoecena phoecena
- 5 to 5.5 feet (1.5 to 1.7 meters) long, with a rounded head and blunt rostrum (nose).
- Small, curved body with triangular fins.
- The back is dark gray, with light gray sides and a white belly. A thin gray line extends from the mouth to the pectoral fins and separates the white and gray areas.
Though they are mistaken by many for baby dolphins, Harbor Porpoises are very different animals. For example, Harbor Porpoises have spade-shaped teeth as opposed to dolphins’ conical, pointed teeth. Additionally, they don’t use sound to communicate the way dolphins do.
In addition, Harbor Porpoises are much shyer and more reserved than dolphins. Though social, they aren’t showy and usually group in tiny pods of 2 to 5 individuals. Because they’re far less boisterous, Harbor Porpoises are often bullied by dolphins.
Harbor Porpoises can be found in shallow, sheltered coastal areas, which is how they got their name. Unfortunately, this habit of living in such proximity to humans puts them in a lot of danger of boat strikes, being caught in fishing nets, and suffering from chronic issues like pollution.
While they’re not as active or acrobatic as dolphins, their proximity to the shore and slow, predictable behavior means that patient observers can easily spot them. They can be seen in bays and harbors along the coast.
#16. Dall’s Porpoise
- Phocoenoides dalli
- 7 to 8 feet (2.1 to 2.4 meters) long with a rotund, barrel-like build.
- They are almost completely black with just a few stark white patches on the face, belly, fins, and tail.
Dall’s Porpoises are numerous and widespread in the Pacific Ocean. However, they are an offshore species that hunt in deep, cold water. This makes them more difficult to observe.
They can dive over 1,600 feet (488 meters) to catch their prey, consisting of various fish and squid. They are also shockingly fast! They can swim up to 34 miles per hour, which is impressive given their small size and rotund build.
Dall’s Porpoises live in fairly small pods of 2 to 12 individuals. But, they are very gregarious creatures and are known to socialize with dolphins, pilot whales, and even larger baleen whales. They also enjoy bow riding alongside boats.
What’s the difference between Dolphins and Porpoises?
Most people think of Dolphins and Porpoises as the same, but there are some key differences between the two animals.
#1. There are MANY more species of Dolphins than Porpoises.
49 distinct species of Dolphins are recorded, while only 7 species of Porpoises are known worldwide.
#2. Their appearance is different.
Dolphins are long, lean, and streamlined with extended noses, while Porpoises are shorter and stocky with blunt noses. Dolphins have a much wider range of colors, including brown, gray, silvery blue, white, and pink. Porpoises, on the other hand, are more monochrome in shades of black, white, and gray. Porpoises have spade-shaped teeth and upright dorsal fins, but Dolphin teeth are cone-shaped, and their dorsal fins are curved.
#3. Porpoises prefer cold, shallow water, and Dolphins live in the deep, temperate waters of the open ocean.
#4. Dolphins are much more gregarious than Porpoises.
Dolphins are outgoing, make a lot of noise, and can be aggressive toward Porpoises, even “bullying” them in the wild. Porpoises prefer to avoid Dolphins altogether, and they’re much warier of humans and other animals. Additionally, humans can hear Dolphins’ whistles and chirps, but Porpoises vocalize in a range that we can’t hear.
Dolphins are so curious and comfortable with humans that they’ve been known to follow injured people who are adrift at sea!
Do you want to learn about LAND MAMMALS that are found in the United States? Check out this field guide!
20 COMMON Mammals in the United States! (ID Guide)
Which of these dolphins have you seen in the United States?
Let us know in the comments!