7 Types of WHALES Found in North Carolina (2024)

What types of whales can you see in North Carolina?

Types of whales in North Carolina

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 North Carolina. 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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7 WHALES in North Carolina!


#1. Sperm Whale

  • Physeter macrocephalus

Whales in North Carolina

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Males are up to 52 feet long and weigh 45 tons, while females grow to 40 feet 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 North Carolina!

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. Pygmy Sperm Whale

  • Kogia breviceps

North Carolina whales

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults grow to 11.5 feet and weigh 700 to 1,000 pounds.
  • Their coloring is dark gray with a patch of white on the belly.
  • They have blocky heads and a pointed snout, giving them a shark-like appearance.

Pygmy Sperm Whales are a widespread species throughout the world’s oceans, inhabiting temperate and tropical waters.

This species is cryptic and avoids ships and aircraft, which makes it very difficult to observe them in the wild. Gathering data about their population and behavior is made even more difficult because they like to spend time with other species. Scientists often observe them together with Dwarf Sperm Whales, which makes them very difficult to identify and examine in detail.

Interestingly, Pygmy Sperm Whales also squirt ink at predators. This unique adaptation to evade danger suggests that they were historically preyed upon by larger species. Although it might be hard for us to imagine now, at one time, these large creatures were the “small fish!”


#3. Risso’s Dolphin

  • Grampus griseus

Species of whales in North Carolina

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults are 8.5 to 13 feet long and weigh 660 to 1,100 pounds.
  • 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.


#4. Pygmy Killer Whale

  • Feresa attenuata

Types of whales in North Carolina

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults grow up to 8.5 feet long and weigh a maximum of 496 pounds.
  • Their coloring is very gray to black all over, with a cape over the head and upper back that’s slightly darker than the rest of the body.
  • They have small rounded heads and no visible beak.

Pygmy Killer Whales are one of the most elusive whales in North Carolina.

They prefer to stay in their pods, which they remain with their entire lives. When they come to the surface to breathe, they’re more likely to form a line and nap rather than engage in showy breaching displays.

This species likes to stay in the deep water outside the continental shelf, in tropical and subtropical water. Because of their affinity for deep water, it’s unlikely to spot them on a whale-watching tour. Even dedicated researchers have trouble observing Pygmy Killer Whales!

Though they avoid humans, they are very social with members of their species and form pods of fifty or more individuals if prey is plentiful. Pygmy Killer Whales eat squid, octopuses, and fish.

As you might imagine, this species becomes very aggressive in captivity, which is understandable given their pelagic lifestyles. They’re known to attack handlers and other dolphin species in captivity.


#5. False Killer Whale

  • Pseudorca crassidens

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Males grow up to 20 feet long, while females are up to 16 feet long. Their maximum weight is 3,000 pounds.
  • They are nearly black, with lighter gray patches on the belly.
  • Their heads are round, and they lack a rostrum or beak. Sometimes the upper jaw hangs over the lower, producing an overbite effect.
  • The teeth of this whale are distinctly large, sharp, and conspicuous.

False Killer Whales have a fascinating talent: they can steal fish! Long-line fishing boats, which set lures along a fishing line, are often targets for this species. The whales sneak fish from the ends of the lines, staying out of sight of the fishermen.

In addition to their pilfering of fish, False Killer Whales are successful predators. They can dive up to 18 meters (20 yards) and are capable of fast chases at this depth. On rare occasions, they have even been observed hunting small dolphins, much like an orca would.

False killer whales have small pods of only a few whales and can even be solitary at times. However, these smaller units are part of much larger groups and they like to socialize, even with other species.


#6. Humpback Whale

  • Megaptera novaeangliae

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults can reach 60 feet and weigh up to 40 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 North Carolina.

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.


#7. North Atlantic Right Whale

  • Eubalaena glacialis

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults grow up to 52 feet long and can weigh up to 70 tons.
  • This species’ coloring is black overall, with mottling and white patches on the underside.
  • Their body shape is wide and short for their overall size. In addition, they lack dorsal fins, and their pectoral fins are very small.
  • They have a prominent upside-down smile due to the depth of their jaws, and their baleen plates are usually on display.

Whale watchers lucky enough to observe these rare animals will enjoy their endearing behavior. North Atlantic Right Whales breach from the water in impressive displays, often coming nearly all the way out of the water before twisting back down. In addition, they are very social and gather together in groups at the surface throughout the year.

Unfortunately, these incredible creatures are critically endangered. They get their name literally from being called the “right” whale to hunt by fishermen during the whaling era. They were ideal targets because they are slow, swim close to the shore, and float after they die.

After being heavily hunted during the 1800s and 1900s, North Atlantic Right Whale populations slowly increased until around 2010. Sadly, since then, the population has declined.

Today, these rare whales are killed by entanglement in fishing gear and boat strikes. Healthy calves are few and far between, which further reduces their population. Breeding problems could be related to contaminants, food shortages, or the stress of non-lethal entanglements in fishing gear.

North Atlantic Right Whales in North Carolina are likely to be capable of living far longer than we currently observe. They may be able to live until around 70 or even 100 years old, but the average life expectancy is between 45 and 65 years. The cause of death is usually related to human activity.


Do you want to learn about LAND MAMMALS found in North Carolina?

Check out this field guide!


Which of these whales have you seen in North Carolina?

Let us know in the comments!

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