Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises

“Will I see a whale?” is a frequently asked question at Point Lobos.  Nobody says, “Will I see a Cetacean?” which is the scientific name for a large group of sea mammals that have very streamlined body shapes, paddle-shaped front limbs, and tails that are flattened into flukes.  Whales can be very large, like the blue whale, which can weigh up to 150 tons, or quite small like the harbor porpoise which is no larger than an average man.  All whales are classified into two groups, the baleen whales (Mysticeti) and the toothed whales (Odantoceti), and both whale types can be seen (sometimes!) at Point Lobos.  Outside the Whaling Station Museum at Whalers Cove there is an excellent example of baleen (below), the stiff, broom-like jaw attachment that replaces teeth in three of the most often seen whales at Point Lobos:  gray whales, humpback whales, and blue whales.  Gray whale baleen is seen on the left.  Baleen whales take huge gulps of sea water and food, and the baleen is used to separate them.  Ocean water is squeezed through the baleen and sent back into the sea, and the small bits of food that are retained are then swallowed – like separating your spaghetti from the cooking water!  Baleen whales eat a variety of small animals – whatever they can grab in their huge mouths!

Toothed whales have just that – teeth!  The population of toothed whales seen at Point Lobos includes orca or killer whales, as well as dolphins and porpoises that romp in the central Pacific Ocean.  Toothed whales eat a variety of larger fish and other marine mammals.  The orca is known for hunting the largest of all marine mammals, the baleen whales.

“How will I know when I see a whale?”  Looking for spouts is the most common way to sight whales at Point Lobos.  All whales must surface to breath air and the spout is caused by hot air from the whale’s lungs mixing with the cold ocean air.  Gray whales and humpback whales have heart-shaped, or bushy, spouts and the humpback whale spout is larger than the gray whale’s.  The heart shape is caused by the two blow holes in the head of these whales.  The blue whale, largest of all whales, has a spectacular vertical single-column spout of up to 38 feet!  Orcas, dolphins, and porpoises have a straight up spout since they have a single blow hole.  The second blow hole in these whales’ skulls is used for sonar location!  Flukes, those big tail flippers that can be seen when a whale dives, and dorsal fins, those large sails on the back of whales, are also features to look for when whale spotting.

Of the baleen whales that frequent Point Lobos, the blue whale and the humpback whale are listed as endangered   The total blue whale population is estimated as 10,000 – 25,000, but this population is dispersed throughout all the oceans of the world and in both near shore and deep ocean waters.  The northeastern Pacific blue whale population is considered more stable that most others.  The gray whale population is estimated at 25,000, but this population is only found near the eastern Pacific shore.  Like blue whales, humpback whales are dispersed throughout the earth’s oceans and their population is estimated as 80,000. 

The spectacular orca, or killer whale, is one of the toothed whales for which population estimates are deficient.  Some of the orca subspecies found along the northeast Pacific coast have been placed on the endangered list.  These populations are estimated to be 2200 – 2700 animals.  None of the dolphins or porpoises commonly seen at Point Lobos is considered endangered. 

In 1946 the International Whaling Commission was established and 1986 the IWC banned commercial whaling in order to increase the whale stock.  However, some nations have chosen not to belong to the IWC and whaling continues in those countries.  At the 2010 IWC meeting, representatives of the 88 member states discussed whether or not to lift the 24-year ban on commercial whaling. Japan, Norway and Iceland have urged the organization to lift the ban. A coalition of anti-whaling nations has offered a compromise plan that would allow these countries to continue whaling, but with smaller catches and under close supervision.