10 Types of WHALES Found in Oregon (2023)
What types of whales can you see in Oregon?
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 Oregon. 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.
Here are the 10 WHALES in Oregon!
- You might notice some of the animals below are dolphins instead of true whales. I included them here because “whale” is in the name or because most people consider them more whale-like. To see the 8 types of DOLPHINS that live in Oregon, CLICK HERE.
#1. Sperm Whale
- Physeter macrocephalus
- 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 Oregon!
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
- 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. Orca (Killer Whale)
- Orcinus orca
- Adults grow up to 32 feet long and weigh as much as 11 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 Oregon.
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.
#4. Risso’s Dolphin
- Grampus griseus
- 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.
#5. Humpback Whale
- Megaptera novaeangliae
- 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 Oregon.
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.
#6. Fin Whale
- Balaenoptera physalus
- Adults are 75 to 85 feet long and weigh 40 to 80 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.
#7. Blue Whale
- Balaenoptera musculus
- Adults can grow to 110 feet long and weigh 165 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.
#8. Sei Whale
- Balaenoptera borealis
- Adults are 40 to 60 feet long and weigh up to 50 tons.
- Their coloring is a pale, creamy gray with a nearly white belly.
- The body shape of this species is similar to a blue whale; they are long and slender with pointed heads and fins.
Sei Whales are very widespread around the world and can be found in a range of habitats, but this doesn’t mean they’re easy to observe. These whales prefer deep waters far offshore and are difficult to spot, particularly because they aren’t showy when they breach the surface for air.
They keep their bodies fairly straight when they surface and don’t bend much to dive. Also, they don’t raise their flukes high from the water to dive like other whales. Instead, they produce only a little movement on the surface, from where their tails propel them downward.
They prefer temperate water and avoid the tropical band around the equator. However, it is not unheard of to see them in tropical areas. These whales don’t venture into polar waters, so the best area for observation is halfway between the equator and a pole.
Sei Whales eat krill, as the other great whales do, but are a bit more generalist in their diet preferences. This species also eats plankton, small schooling fish like anchovies, and some squid.
#9. Minke Whale
- Balaenoptera acutorostrata
- Adults grow up to 35 feet long and weigh a maximum of 10 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.
#10. Gray Whale
- Eschrichtius robustus
- Adults are 42 to 49 feet long and weigh up to 45 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 Oregon?
Check out this field guide!
39 COMMON Mammals in Oregon! (ID Guide)
Which of these whales have you seen in Oregon?
Let us know in the comments!