Dolphin Sightings Delight Whale Watchers

By Birch Aquarium naturalist Danielle Carter

Birch Aquarium is just past the halfway point of our 14th season of whale watching in partnership with Flagship Cruises & Events. So far, it’s been an incredible season, with over 400 whales spotted, including tiny calves and numerous breaches!

Photo by Marsha MacWillie.

Photo by Marsha MacWillie.

But gray whales are not the only marine mammals we have been seeing on our trips. So far, we have also been treated to multiple sightings of not just one, but four species of dolphin—common dolphin, Pacific bottlenose dolphin, Pacific white-sided dolphin, and Risso’s dolphin.

As its name implies, the common dolphin is the dolphin species we most commonly see out on the water. Common dolphins are about seven feet long, weigh close to 300 pounds, and typically travel in large pods. We have seen these playful dolphins on numerous trips and a few weeks ago we were lucky enough to witness a large pod of over 500 individuals! They were very active and to the delight of guests onboard, the dolphins came right over to the Marietta—bow riding, splashing in our wake, and leaping into the air with the style of acrobats. There were so many dolphins that they were literally surrounding our boat.

You know you’re having a good day out on the water when you’re not only seeing migrating gray whales, but also dolphins as far as the eye can see.

Whale Watching Season, December 2010 - April 2011

Of the four dolphin species, the Risso’s dolphin is the least common in our area. This season we have been lucky enough to spot pods of Risso’s dolphins on several of our trips, including a large pod of over 30 individuals. Risso’s are a larger species of dolphin and can reach lengths of up to 12 feet, and can weigh up to 1,100 pounds.

They have a very distinctive look, with a tall dorsal fin, a rounded head, and numerous white scars along their dark gray bodies. Calves are born solid gray in color, but accumulate scars as they mature from squid bites, parasites, and rake marks from other Risso’s dolphins.  As a result, mature Risso’s dolphins are nearly white in coloration, which along with their size makes them very easy to identify.

Risso's Dolphins

Risso’s Dolphins. Photo by Danielle Carter.

We have also recorded several sightings of the familiar Pacific bottlenose dolphins and the playful Pacific white-sided dolphins. Our whale watching season continues through April 13, so there is still plenty of time to go on an adventure out on the Pacific to witness the incredible diversity of dolphin species off our coast and of course the epic migration of the Eastern Pacific gray whale.

Want to see dolphins, gray whales, and more? Go whale watching with Birch Aquarium and Flagship Cruises & Events, now through April 13!

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  • Caitlin
    March 12, 2014 at 12:06 am

    that’s my common dolphin pic 🙂

  • Scripps Institution of Oceanography UC San Diego