21 Types of WHALES Found in the United States (2022)
What types of whales can you see in the United States?
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 the United States. 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 21 WHALES in the United States!
- 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 types of DOLPHINS that live in the United States, 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 the United States!
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. Dwarf Sperm Whale
- Kogia sima
- Adults are 9 feet long and weigh 300 to 600 pounds.
- They have a dark gray overall color with white on the belly. They sometimes appear dark blue or brown.
- The flat, blocky head and pointed snout make the Dwarf Sperm Whale resemble a shark.
Dwarf Sperm Whales inhabit deep oceanic waters and the more sheltered waters of the continental shelf but are not found near the shore. Because they prefer the open ocean, you would have a hard time seeing this species in person. Most of what we know about them has been learned from strandings of deceased whales.
In addition to their preference for open water, Dwarf Sperm Whales exhibit cryptic behavior designed to avoid attention. They rarely spend time at the water’s surface, and when they do, they move quietly. As a result, their exhalations, or blows, are difficult to spot. Also, these whales don’t raise their flukes (tails) to dive like many whales do, nor leap into the air like dolphins. This elusive nature makes them very challenging to find and monitor.
Fascinatingly, Dwarf Sperm Whales have borrowed a defensive strategy from squid: they produce ink! When threatened, the whale will release the ink-like liquid into the water from within its intestines. It will then escape while the ink distracts the potential threat and hides the Dwarf Sperm Whale.
#3. 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!”
- Monodon monoceros
- Adults are 13 to 18 feet long and weigh 1,700 to 3,500 pounds.
- 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 the United States!
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.
#5. Beluga Whale
- Delphinapterus leucas
- Adults grow up to 16 feet long and weigh 3,150 pounds.
- 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.
#6. Short-finned Pilot Whale
- Globicephala macrorhynchus
- Adults are 12 to 24 feet long and weigh between 2,200 and 6,600 pounds.
- Their coloring is dark gray to nearly black, with slightly lighter gray patches on the back and chest.
- They have a blocky, square head and no rostrum (nose).
If you enjoy whale-watching, the Short-finned Pilot Whale is one species you’ve probably seen on an excursion. They range throughout tropical and temperate oceans and are reliably found in deep water near the continental shelf. Most Short-finned Pilot Whales are nomadic, traveling wherever hunting and weather conditions are most favorable.
This species is one of the most social types of whales in the United States.
They live in tight-knit family groups and usually remain in their family pod for their entire lives. They live, play, and hunt together but mate with members of other pods during social gatherings.
Sadly, Short-finned Pilot Whales are often involved in mass strandings. Though the reason is not clear, the cause is likely to be related to their extremely close social bonds. It’s believed that pilot whales cannot abandon their pod members to save themselves when disaster strikes.
#7. Long-finned Pilot Whale
- Globicephala melas
- Adults grow to between 19 and 25 feet long and weigh 2,900 to 5,000 pounds.
- 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 the United States 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!
#8. 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 the United States.
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.
#9. 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.
#10. Pygmy Killer Whale
- Feresa attenuata
- 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 the United States.
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.
#11. Melon-headed Whale
- Peponocephala electra
Also known as the Melon Whale, Electra Dolphin, and Many-toothed Blackfish.
- Adults grow up to 9 feet long and reach a maximum weight of 460 pounds.
- Their overall coloring is medium gray, with a slightly darker “cape” over the head and back.
- They have a rounded head that comes to a point over the nose and tall dorsal fins.
Melon-headed Whales are playful and gregarious! You’re likely to catch this species breaching high above the water’s surface or riding the bow waves of boats. In addition, they often leap through the water athletically while swimming.
Melon-headed Whales have a clear routine, which makes them rather easy to observe. They hunt after dark when the squid and cuttlefish they eat are more likely to be active and nearer the surface. They rest in the morning, then spend the afternoon socializing and playing.
These whales are extremely social and are often spotted in groups of up to a thousand. Their social nature and large aggregations explain why Melon-headed Whales have successfully stayed more interconnected genetically than other species. Their large gene pool allows them to adapt to threats over time in a way that small, genetically-isolated populations cannot.
#12. False Killer Whale
- Pseudorca crassidens
- 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.
#13. 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 the United States.
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.
#14. 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.
#15. 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.
#16. 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.
#17. Bryde’s Whale
- Balaenoptera brydei
- Adults are 40 to 55 feet long and weigh up to 45 tons.
- The coloring is medium gray with a pale gray belly.
- They have long, slender bodies and pointed heads. Their most recognizable trait is the three ridges that run from the tip of their rostrum up their head to their twin blowholes.
Bryde’s Whales prefer warmer tropical, subtropical, and temperate waters worldwide. Consequently, they do not venture near the poles.
Unlike the other great whales, which generally travel immense distances between their breeding grounds and feeding locations, Bryde’s whales can be full-time residents in one area. Some Bryde’s whales in the United States make short migrations, but others barely travel.
This species is as mysterious as it is fascinating, and very little is known about them. Moreover, what information we know seems to differ widely among populations of Bryde’s Whales.
For example, In South Africa, the smaller coastal population of Bryde’s Whales breeds all year round. They feed on pilchards, anchovies, and mackerel. However, the nearby offshore Bryde’s Whales of southern Africa breed seasonally in autumn and prefer to eat tiny planktonic crustaceans.
#18. 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.
#19. North Atlantic Right Whale
- Eubalaena glacialis
- 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 the United States 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.
#20. Bowhead Whale
- Balaena mysticetus
- Adults reach a length of 62 feet and can weigh up to 100 tons.
- Their coloring is dark gray to black, with white patches on the jaw and lower belly.
- Their mouths are shaped as an upside-down curve, and their baleen plates are often visible.
Alaska is the only place to observe Bowhead Whales in the United States.
They reside at the southern edges of pack ice in the Arctic Circle and travel north with it as it recedes for summer. Their migration is entirely dependent on the formation, thickness, and melt of the sea ice.
Bowhead Whales feed differently throughout the year, as the ice influences prey availability. In the winter, they feed near the ocean floor. In spring, they use cracks in the ice to travel to previously inaccessible areas. Finally, in summer and autumn, they congregate together to feed near the surface on huge zooplankton blooms.
The thick skull of the Bowhead Whale is perfectly adapted to living among sea ice. Native Alaskan whalers report that they have even seen Bowhead Whales smash their way through ice two feet thick to breathe at the surface. The ice also causes scars on the skin of the whales, which scientists use to identify individuals.
These whales have a very slow, long lifecycle and do not begin to breed until age 25. Evidence such as ancient harpoon heads recovered from recently deceased animals suggests these whales can live for over 200 years! This makes them the longest-living mammal in the world.
#21. 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 the United States?
Check out this field guide!
50 COMMON Mammals in the United States! (ID Guide)
Which of these whales have you seen in the United States?
Let us know in the comments!