What types of whales can you see in Virginia?
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 Virginia. 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.
5 WHALES in Virginia!
- 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 10 types of DOLPHINS that live in Virginia, CLICK HERE.
#1. 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 Virginia.
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.
#2. 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 Virginia 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!
#3. 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.
#4. 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 Virginia.
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.
#5. 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.
Do you want to learn about LAND MAMMALS found in Virginia?
Check out this field guide!
26 COMMON Mammals in Virginia! (ID Guide)
Which of these whales have you seen in Virginia?
Let us know in the comments!