Whales and Dolphins

Whales, dolphins and porpoises are collectively known as cetaceans. There are two main types of whales, both of which are found in the Antarctic: the "baleen whales", or mysticetes (such as the humpbacks and fin whales), and the "toothed whales", or odontocetes (which include all the dolphins and porpoises).

Earlier this century Blue Whales, Southern Right Whales and Humpbacks were nearly hunted to extinction, but they are now gradually recovering thanks to the international regulation of whaling. Today the entire area around the continent of Antarctica has been declared an international whale sanctuary, but many accuse some nations of continuing to hunt Minke whales under the guise of scientific investigation.

Whaling activities are monitored by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), a group composed of former (and present) whaling nations including the United States. However, smaller cetaceans such as various species of dolphins are not covered by the IWC or any other Antarctic regulation.

Baleen Whales

Baleen whales are usually larger than toothed whales, and feed on plankton and krill which they strain through sieve-like plates (the baleen). This grouping can be further subdivided into the the Right whales and the Rorqual whales. Right whales are medium sized, identifiable by their long baleen, blunt snout and lack of a dorsal fin. The Southern Right Whale is the only Antarctic representative of this group.

The Rorqual whales were originally the most sought after of whales, because of their valuable baleen and large size. They tend to be the largest of all whales, and one member -- the Blue Whale -- is the largest animal ever to have lived. Other Antarctic representatives of this group are the Fin, the Sei, the Humpback, and the Minke. Return

Blue Whales

The Blue Whale can reach perhaps 85 feet (27 m) and weigh 90 tons; sightings of Blues approaching 100 feet have long been reported, though not confirmed. Blues are solitary whales, but are sometimes encountered in pairs. Despite their enormous size, their diet consists almost entirely of krill. Blue Whales are endangered world wide, with a global population at one point dipping toward only 11,000 (of which 9,000 were in southern oceans). Since the IWC ban on Blue Whale taking was instituted in 1966, their numbers are believed to be slowly recovering. Return


Most baleen whales migrate over the entire globe, moving from the Antarctic where they feed on krill, to the sub-tropics, where they breed and spend the winter season. The most well-known of these species is the Humpback, frequently spotted off the southern coasts when pods pass close to inhabited coastlines during their migrations. Humpbacks reach up to 50 feet in length, and weigh up to 40 tons; they travel in large pods of 200 or more individuals though they are more spread out during their migrations. They feed on schooling fish, and have the behavior of circling around these schools making a "bubble net" to concentrate their prey; they then lunge into the dense cloud of fish with mouth wide open to feed. Return

Minke Whales

Minkes are relatively small for a baleen whale, only about 30 feet (10 m); because of this they escaped the whaler's harpoons thoughout the heyday of whaling. After a period of extensive hunting into the middle of this century, their numbers decreased dramatically. There is some evidence to suggest, however, that the Minke whale's population has actually trebled or quadrupled following the modern regulation of whaling. The Minke was christened after a whaler named Meineke who mistook one for a baby Blue. Minke are also found in the northern hemisphere, and a year-round population is thought to live in the Strait of Juan de Fuca off Washington's coast. Return

Fin Whales

The Fin Whale is the second-largest whale species, sometimes exceeding 80 feet and weighing up to 50 tons. Despite their size, Fin whales are one of the fastest of the baleens, reaching speeds up to 20 mph. Fins usually travel in pods of 6 or 7, but may be seen singly or in pairs. They feed on larger fish such as cod and pollock as well as krill. Return

Toothed Whales


Eleven other smaller species of toothed whales inhabit the waters of the Antarctic proper. The most notorious is the familiar killer whale, or Orca, which feeds on seals, squid and even some of the "great" whales, which they attack much as wolves attack the larger caribou or moose. Orcas are relatively small, rarely exceeding 25 feet and 8 tons; they travel in pods of various sizes, and are found in all oceans. Return

Sperm Whale

The largest of the Antarctic toothed varieties is the Sperm Whale, the classic prey of the 19th century whaling. Sperm Whales range between 50 and 60 feet and about 58 tons, but their enormous heads are filled with the once-valuable "spermaceti" oil. Despite their importance to the whaling industry, there are well over half a million individuals in the world, most of them in the southern oceans. Sperm Whales feed on squid, fish and octopuses. They are the world's deepest diving mammal, able to reach depths of 1.25 miles (2 km). Only the bull (adult male) Sperm Whale inhabits the Antarctic. Return


The smaller members of the toothed whale family are usually referred to as dolphins. The Hourglass Dolphin is the southern-most dolphin, and the only one frequent in the Antarctic waters from 45 degrees to 65 degrees South. They are about 7 feet (2 m) long, with harlequin-like black and white markings. Hourglass dolphins live in schools of up to 40 animals, but otherwise little is known about their habits. Return

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Photography ©Jonathan Chester, Extreme Images© 1995 Terraquest. All Rights Reserved.