11 Types of WHALES Found in Canada (2024)

What types of whales can you see in Canada?

Types of whales in Canada

Whale-watching is one of the most exciting adventures I can think of! These enormous, fascinating creatures have captured the imagination of many nature lovers.

Below, you will find pictures and descriptions of the whales found in Canada. I’ve also included RANGE MAPS and fun facts about each species.

Although there are many interesting facts about whales, 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.

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11 WHALES in Canada!

#1. Sperm Whale

  • Physeter macrocephalus

Whales in Canada

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Males are up to 52 feet (15.8 m) long and weigh 45 tons, while females grow to 40 feet (12.1 m) and weigh 15 tons.
  • Their coloring is uniformly dark gray with a slightly paler underbelly.
  • Body is oddly proportioned, with a large, blocky head, small fins, and mismatched upper and lower jaws.

The Sperm Whale is the loudest whale in Canada!

Its call can reach 230 decibels, loud enough to deafen humans several times over. Not only that, the force of their sound is so powerful that you could be vibrated to death if you were too close to its call. Incredibly, the sound travels through seawater much more effectively than through air, so we hear their calls as faint noises above the water.

In addition to their powerful calls, these whales are also capable of amazing physical feats. They can dive to 3,200 meters (two miles) and stay submerged for up to an hour! They regularly spend time at depths of 1,000 meters (0.6 miles) or more.

Part of the reason they prefer deep water is their feeding preferences. Their main food source, the giant squid, lives in extremely deep water, and these two massive animals have some epic deep sea battles. Scientists have learned much about the giant squid from examining the scars on Sperm Whales. These scars have revealed that the whales routinely eat squid that are equal to them in size. It’s almost impossible to imagine a squid that large!

#2. Narwhal

  • Monodon monoceros

Canada whales

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults are 13 to 18 feet (4 to 5.4 m) long and weigh 1,700 to 3,500 pounds (771 to 1587 kg).
  • Their coloring is white overall, with mottled gray on the back.
  • They have rounded heads and flukes, and male Narwhals have a single long horn that protrudes from the forehead.

Narwhals are difficult to confuse with any other whale in Canada!

That’s because males have a huge horn that protrudes from their heads like a unicorn, even though the “horn” is actually just an enlarged canine tooth! Female Narwhals don’t have this feature, so you could easily confuse one for a young beluga whale.

This fascinating species of whale is found in the Arctic Ocean year-round. They spend their time hunting and make many deep dives of around 1,500 meters (0.9 miles) to feed on the sea floor.

During the winter, Narwhals live far offshore in deep oceanic waters covered in pack ice. They breathe through cracks in the ice. In spring, they migrate toward coastal waters for the summer. To travel, they move in hops between breathing holes, taking turns breathing. Narwhals only spend around two months per year in unfrozen waters.

The function of Narwhal tusks has been a source of much debate in the scientific community. Nowadays, it is generally thought that they are used in competition for females. While this is largely through display, males will occasionally use them in fights over breeding females.

#3. Beluga Whale

  • Delphinapterus leucas

Species of whales in Canada

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults grow up to 16 feet (1.8 m) long and weigh 3,150 pounds (1430 kg).
  • They are white all over, with no shading for camouflage.
  • Their bodies appear chubby and soft due to a thick layer of blubber.

Beluga Whales are perfectly adapted to living in the frozen waters of the Arctic Circle. Their thick blubber means that they can thrive in the frigid water over winter. In addition, instead of having a dorsal fin, these whales have tough ridges along their spines, which resist damage when surfacing among fast-moving ice floes.

This species is extremely important to the survival of Native people in the Arctic. Although the commercial harvest of Beluga Whales is illegal, subsistence harvesting by Native groups is legal, and its practice is not harmful to the Beluga population.

You’re most likely to recognize the Beluga Whale by its uniquely shaped head. They have extremely pronounced melons, which are segregated from their short rostrums (noses). The melon is a fat-filled organ that aids in communication and echolocation.

In addition to their recognizable heads, Beluga Whales are extremely vocal. They mimic the sounds they hear around them. This skill has earned them the nickname “canaries of the sea.” They are very social and tend to be curious around humans rather than fearful.

Beluga Whales are also able to move between salt and freshwater. They swim into estuaries, rivers, and inlets in pursuit of fish, making them easier to observe in the calm, more hospitable inland waters.

#4. Long-finned Pilot Whale

  • Globicephala melas

Types of whales in Canada

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults grow to between 19 and 25 feet (5.8 to 7.6 m) long and weigh 2,900 to 5,000 pounds (1315 to 2267 kg).
  • Their overall coloring is dark gray to black, but their back and chest patches are white, contrasting with Short-finned Pilot Whales.
  • They also have a blocky head and absent rostrum, but their fins are long and hooked.

Long-finned Pilot Whales in eastern Canada prefer cooler temperatures than their short-finned cousins, so they have a different global distribution. They can be found in temperate and subpolar waters. Though they favor water around the continental shelf, they are also commonly spotted farther offshore in very deep areas.

Members of this species live in tight-knit family groups that follow the maternal line. These pods, usually with 10 to 20 individuals, also associate loosely with other pods in their general area. As a result, Long-finned Pilot Whales can be observed in huge gatherings that can exceed thousands of individuals.

One of the most interesting features of Long-finned Pilot Whales is their eating. Instead of snapping their teeth closed around their prey like most other dolphins, they retract their large tongue, causing negative pressure inside their mouths, which draws in water along with their meal. So, in essence, they suck their prey up like a giant vacuum cleaner!

#5. Orca (Killer Whale)

  • Orcinus orca

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults grow up to 32 feet (9.7 m) long and weigh as much as 9.8 tons.
  • Their distinctive coloring is instantly recognizable: Black overall, with a stark white underside and white patches under each eye.
  • Orcas’ dorsal fins are large, triangular, and point straight up or fall to one side.

Orcas are perhaps the most well-known whale in Canada.

Although we refer to this species as a whale, the Orca is, in fact, the largest species of dolphin. Due to its recognizable coloring and widespread distribution, it would be challenging to find anyone who doesn’t know at least a little about this species!

Their adaptability is a true marvel and the reason they have spread into every corner of the globe. They occur throughout temperate and even some tropical seas. Additionally, Orcas are incredibly capable hunters and are widely regarded as the ocean’s top predator. Even fully-grown great white sharks occasionally fall prey to these skilled predators.

Intelligence and strong social bonds are two key factors that make this species so formidable in hunting. Orcas can hunt dangerous animals such as sharks by working together as a team to incapacitate the prey with minimal risk to themselves.

Despite their tremendous adaptability, some populations are still at risk. For example, the Southern Resident population off the west coast of the US is suffering from the impacts of human activity, which causes food scarcity and increased boat traffic. Conversely, the transient Bigg’s Orca is doing well. These pods hunt marine mammals rather than fish, so they are less affected by overfishing. They also move around more and live further from the coast, so human activity doesn’t impact them as much.

#6. Risso’s Dolphin

  • Grampus griseus

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults are 8.5 to 13 feet (2.6 to 4 m) long and weigh 660 to 1,100 pounds (299 to 453 kg).
  • Their coloring is dark gray on the fins and lighter gray on the body, with white bellies. This species lightens as they age, with the white coloring spreading toward their upper bodies.
  • They have round heads and no beak, and their mouths have a smiling appearance.

Risso’s Dolphins live in a wide range of habitats, including tropical, sub-tropical, and temperate waters. They tend to be found just beyond the continental shelf, in water between 400 and 1,000 meters (0.24 to 0.6 miles) deep. However, they can be spotted occasionally in shallow coastal waters and deep offshore waters too.

This species primarily eats squid. They tend to hunt at night when squid rise to the surface and become far easier to hunt. The white markings on the bodies of Risso’s dolphins are scars made by squid and other animals such as cookie-cutter sharks.

In addition to scars from their prey, Risso’s Dolphins also get scars due to raking, a common method of communication between individuals. They use their teeth to scrape one another, leaving long parallel cuts on their skin. Rake marks can be severe, but most of the time are very superficial and do not fully pierce the skin. Raking is used to assert dominance and fight over breeding partners.

Interestingly, the rake marks and other injuries heal white. The marks are very obvious against their dark gray skin. The scars accumulate and merge, and even shallow injuries remain visible forever, creating an intricate pattern of scrapes and lines. This is thought to help the dolphins avoid aggressive interactions as they age. Risso’s dolphins live for around 35 years, and scientists often use their marks to estimate their age.

#7. Humpback Whale

  • Megaptera novaeangliae

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults can reach 60 feet (18.3 m) and weigh up to 35 tons.
  • Their coloring is black, with white markings on the belly and pectoral fins.
  • The fins are wavy, and the nose is covered in bumpy protrusions. The belly is often ridged.

This species is one of the most wide-ranging whales in Canada.

The same whales that can be observed feeding in the waters around Alaska in summer travel to Hawaii during the winter months! Humpback Whales follow the same migration patterns year after year, making them easy to spot on whale-watching expeditions.

Whale watchers love to see Humpback Whales exhibit their showy behavior. They often breach high out of the water, slapping their bodies and fins against the surface. Scientists believe that the loud sounds produced by their breaching are a form of communication with other whales.

Krill, a type of tiny crustacean very similar to shrimp, is the primary food source of these gigantic whales. Humpback Whales, like the other great whales, lack teeth. Instead, they have hair-like plates called baleen that hang down from their upper jaws. Whales take huge gulps of water into their mouths and capture thousands of krill. Then they filter the water back out through the baleen plates, trapping the krill inside.

#8. Fin Whale

  • Balaenoptera physalus

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults are 75 to 85 feet (22 to 26 m) long and weigh 35 to 72 tons.
  • The coloring is light gray-brown across the back and white on the underside, and a wavy pattern forms where the two colors meet.
  • This species has a remarkably slender, streamlined body for such a large whale.

Fin Whales are the fastest swimmers of the great whales. This ability likely evolved to help them evade predation, especially by orcas that work together to hunt and kill young or vulnerable individuals.

Their speed is unnecessary for their hunting needs, though, because Fin Whales feed on krill, schools of tiny fish, and squid. Instead, they use a technique known as lunge feeding to speed through a tightly-grouped ball of prey, swallowing as many as possible

Fin Whales were hunted to near extinction during the 19th and 20th centuries. Thanks to their fast swimming pace and preference for offshore waters, they avoided predation during the primitive years of whaling. Unfortunately, as whaling techniques modernized and mechanized, they became victims of the industry.

But as conservation of whale species became a priority, the population of Fin Whales rebounded somewhat. Nevertheless, they are still in danger of extinction throughout their range.

#9. Blue Whale

  • Balaenoptera musculus

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults can grow to 110 feet (33.5 m) long and weigh 148 tons.
  • The coloring is a consistent, mottled slate gray that appears blue underwater.
  • Despite their immense size and weight, Blue Whales are long and streamlined with slender fins.

The Blue Whale is the largest animal to have ever lived on earth!

It’s larger than any recorded dinosaur fossils and many times bigger than any other living animal. It’s almost too big to comprehend without seeing a scale representation.

Despite being the largest animal on earth, Blue Whales almost exclusively eat tiny crustaceans called krill! They can eat up to 8,000 pounds of krill daily by straining huge mouthfuls of seawater out through their baleen plates and eating the krill from the water.

Blue Whales are fairly solitary animals. Occasionally, they are spotted in pairs but do not tend to bond long-term. Even the mother-to-calf bond is not as strong as other species, and calves are weaned much faster than those of smaller cetaceans. Nursing can last for as little as six months.

This species is highly migratory, so you’re likely to see it in various habitats depending on the time of year. They can be found in colder waters in spring and summer, but Blue Whales are not found in the Arctic Ocean. Instead, they travel to areas of high food availability, leading them into southern waters near Antarctica. In the winter, they can be found in subtropical water, where they escape severe weather and ice to give birth to their calves.

#10. Minke Whale

  • Balaenoptera acutorostrata

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults grow up to 35 feet (10.6 m) long and weigh a maximum of 8.9 tons.
  • Their upper bodies are uniformly black and contrast sharply with their white undersides. They have large gray patches behind the pectoral fins.
  • The body shape is much thicker than most large whales, with large fins and tails.

Minke Whales are very widely distributed and can be found in every ocean. In summer, they inhabit polar waters, where food is very abundant. It’s common to see them grouped with up to 400 individuals where food is plentiful. Minke Whales are very opportunistic feeders and eat a wide range of small schooling fish, tiny crustaceans, and plankton.

In winter, Minke Whales head to warmer waters and disperse widely in pairs or alone. This is likely a strategy to avoid orcas that hunt Minke Whales due to their relatively small size. In addition, they will swim much faster than normal to try to outrun orcas.

If you spot one, you may recognize a Minke Whale by its unique surfacing style when they come up for air. The tip of their snout appears from the water first, then they roll the length of their bodies along the surface and dive down using their entire tail.

#11. Gray Whale

  • Eschrichtius robustus

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults are 42 to 49 feet (12.8 to 14.9 m) long and weigh up to 40 tons.
  • They’re a mottled pale gray color with bumps and notches that create a ridged appearance.
  • This species has a smooth, slender body, a narrow head, and an enormous tail.

Gray whales strongly prefer coastal habitats and can be found in very shallow water near land. This habit is related to their eating habits, which are different from other baleen whales.

Instead of skimming plankton from the surface or engulfing schooling fish from the water column, they slide along the sandy sea floor on their sides, sifting the sediment through their baleen plates. This feeding method often leaves tell-tale ditches on the sea floor that indicate the presence of Gray Whales.

As you might imagine, this species’ diet is much more varied than other baleen whales. They eat small fish, swimming crabs, fish eggs, tube-dwelling worms, and other creatures that live on the sea floor.

Gray whales often fall prey to Orcas. Scars from these encounters are almost always present on the flukes and tails, and scientists use them to identify individuals. Orca pods tend to attack young calves or migrating individuals when they are most vulnerable.

Do you want to learn about LAND MAMMALS found in Canada?

Check out this field guide!

Which of these whales have you seen in Canada?

Let us know in the comments!

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