Grays, Fins, and Humpbacks – Oh My!

The fin whale is the second largest animal on earth, behind the blue whale.

In the past few weeks, we’ve seen a few whale species other than grays off San Diego.

A favorite is the fin whale. The second largest animal on our planet today (averaging 79 feet long), these whales are quite a sight to see. Fins are nicknamed “greyhounds of the sea” and for good reason. They can travel at speeds of 25 knots – more than 28 miles per hour.

The fin whale has a few other defining characteristics, namely their prominent dorsal fin and asymmetrical coloration. Their dorsal fin is falcate, or curved, and the coloration of their jaws is irregular – one side is white and the other is black. This may play a role in feeding behavior; when lunging at their prey, the whales often come in at an angle. It’s possible the white side of their mouth is disorienting to prey, causing the fish to swim into the whales’ mouth.

Fin whales are not known to be as migratory as gray whales, which travel 10,000 miles roundtrip each year between their feeding and breeding grounds. Fins have a fairly large latitudinal range, and this expansive foraging area makes their movement harder for scientists to interpret and decipher. Still, no one can disagree that they are an amazing animal to see in the ocean.

Humpback whale breeching

Humpback breaching off San Diego. Photo by momof3sharkkids (via Flickr)

Another species we see this time of year is the humpback. Up to 56 feet long, humpbacks are a bit larger than gray whales. They do not have a distinct dorsal fin, but instead have a small, rounded dorsal hump. These whales are highly migratory and travel in a similar pattern to gray whales. During our summer months, humpbacks feed in northern latitudes then travel southward toward tropical waters to mate and give birth.We typically see them toward the end of the gray whale migration.

Cetaceans in any shape or size are always a welcome sight aboard the Marietta. You never know what will show up when you’re onboard with us!

Whale Watching cruises led by Birch Aquarium naturalists end April 15. Learn more and download a coupon for up to $30 off here

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Scripps Institution of Oceanography UC San Diego