What You See
Animals We Encounter
Wonder what you will have a chance to see on your Whale Watching trip in Dana Point? Here is a list of all the cetaceans (whales and dolphins) you may encounter, depending on the time of year.
Whales & Dolphins
- Blue Whales
The blue whale is the largest mammal, possibly the largest animal, to ever inhabit the earth. Its body is long, somewhat tapered, and streamlined, with the head making up less than one-fourth of its total body length.
The blue whale is blue-gray in color, but often with lighter gray mottling on a darker background (or with darker spots on a lighter background). The underside of its flippers may be a lighter color or white, while the ventral (underside) of the fluke is dark.
Its dorsal (top) fin is small and triangular or falcate (curved) in shape, and is located three-fourths of the way back on the body.
The flukes are broad and triangular. The rear edge is smooth with a slight median notch.
The longest blue whale ever recorded was a 108-foot adult female caught during whaling efforts in Antarctica! In modern times, blue whales in the Southern Hemisphere reach lengths of 90-100 feet , but their Northern Hemisphere counterparts are smaller, on average 75 to 80 feet (23 to 24.5 m). Blue whales can weigh over 100 tons (99,800 kg). Females are larger than males of the same age, the largest perhaps weighing as much as 150 tons (136,000 kg).
The blue whale is thought to feed almost exclusively on small, shrimp-like creatures called euphausiids or krill. During the summer feeding season the blue whale gorges itself, consuming an astounding 4 tons (3.6 metric tons) or more each day.
- Gray Whales
Gray whales have a streamlined body, with a narrow, tapered head. The upper jaw is arched in profile, and slightly overlaps the lower jaw.
The gray whale received its name from the gray patches and white mottling on its dark skin. On the skin are many scratches, scattered patches of white barnacles, and orange whale lice. Newborn calves are dark gray to black, although some may have distinctive white markings.
The gray whale has no dorsal (top) fin. About 2/3 of the way back on its body is a prominent dorsal hump followed by a series of 6-12 knuckles along the dorsal ridge that extend to the flukes (tail lobes). Its flippers are paddle shaped and pointed at the tips. Its fluke is about 10-12 feet (3.7 m) across, pointed at the tips, and deeply notched in the center.
Adult males measure 45-46 feet (13.7-14 m) and adult females measure slightly more.
Gray whales feed on small crustaceans such as amphipods, and tube worms found in bottom sediments.
Gray whales inhabit shallow coastal waters of the eastern North Pacific. The gray whale makes one of the longest of all mammalian migrations, averaging 10,000-14,000 miles (16,000-22,530 km) round trip. In October, the whales begin to leave their feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi Seas and head south for their mating and calving lagoons in Baja California, Mexico. The southward journey takes 2-3 months. The whales remain in the lagoons for 2-3 months, allowing the calves to build up a thick layer of blubber to sustain them during the northward migration and keep them warm in the colder waters. The return trip north takes another 2-3 months. Mothers and calves travel very near shore on the northbound migration. There are some individual gray whales that are found year round in the Straits of Juan de Fuca between the State of Washington and Vancouver Island, Canada, and some that are seen during the summer months off the northern California coast.
- Fin Whales
The fin whale is long, sleek, and streamlined, with a V-shaped head which is flat on top. A single ridge extends from the blowhole to the tip of the rostrum (upper jaw).
The fin whale is light gray to brownish-black on its back and sides. Two lighter “colored” chevrons begin midline behind the blowholes and slant down the sides towards the fluke (tail) before turning and ending right behind the eye. The underside of its body, flippers, and fluke are white. The lower jaw is gray or black on the left side and creamy white on the right side.
The fin whale has a prominent, slightly falcate (curved) dorsal fin located far back on its body. Its flippers are small and tapered, and its fluke is wide, pointed at the tips, and notched in the center.
Adult males measure up to 78 feet (24 m) in the northern hemisphere, and 88 feet (26.8 m) in the southern hemisphere. Females are slightly larger than males.
Fin whales feed mainly on small shrimp-like creatures called krill or euphausiids and schooling fish. They have been observed circling schools of fish at high speed, rolling the fish into compact balls then turning on their right side to engulf the fish. Their color pattern, including their asymmetrical jaw color, may somehow aid in the capture of such prey.
Fin whales are found in all oceans of the world. They may migrate to subtropical waters for mating and calving during the winter months and to the colder areas of the Arctic and Antarctic for feeding during the summer months; although recent evidence suggests that during winter fin whales may be dispersed in deep ocean waters.
- Minke Whales
The minke whale is the smallest member of the rorqual family of whales (those whales with baleen, a dorsal fin, and throat pleats). One of its most distinctive features is the narrow, triangular rostrum (upper jaw), which is proportionally shorter than in other rorquals.
The minke is counter-shaded-black to dark gray on top, white below. Some minkes have a light-colored chevron on the back behind the head. Two areas of lighter gray appear on each side: one behind the flippers and another below and forward of the dorsal fin. Distinctive to minke whales outside of the Antarctic is a white band on each flipper. The band is usually absent in Antarctic minkes, although some show an irregular banding pattern.
The dorsal fin of the minke is tall and falcate (curved), and is located two-thirds of the way back on the body. Its flippers are slender and pointed at the tips. Flukes are broad, up to one-fourth of the body length, pointed at the tips, and notched in the center.
Adult males average about 8 m (26 feet) with a maximum length of 9.4 m (31 feet), while adult females average 8.2 m (27 feet) with a maximum length of 10.2 m (33 feet).
Minke whales feed primarily on krill in the southern hemisphere and on small schooling fish (capelin, cod, herring, pollock) or krill in the northern hemisphere. They will also eat copepods in certain areas.
Minkes are found in all oceans, though they are rarely observed in the tropics. They seem to prefer icy waters, and are found right up to the edge of the icepack in polar regions, and have actually become entrapped in the ice fields on occasion.
- Humpback Whales
The head of a humpback whale is broad and rounded when viewed from above, but slim in profile. The body is not as streamlined as other rorquals, but is quite round, narrowing to a slender peduncle (tail stock). The top of the head and lower jaw have rounded, bump-like knobs, each containing at least one stiff hair.
The body is black on the dorsal (upper) side, and mottled black and white on the ventral (under) side. This color pattern extends to the flukes. When the humpback whale “sounds” (goes into a long or deep dive) it usually throws its flukes upward, exposing the black and white patterned underside. This pattern is distinctive to each whale. The flippers range from all white to all black dorsally, but are usually white ventrally.
About 2/3 of the way back on the body is an irregularly shaped dorsal (top) fin. Its flippers are very long, between 1/4 and 1/3 the length of its body, and have large knobs on the leading edge. The flukes (tail), which can be 18 feet (5.5 m) wide, is serrated and pointed at the tips.
Adult males measure 40-48 feet (12.2-14.6 m), adult females measure 45-50 feet (13.7-15.2 m).
Humpback whales feed on krill, small shrimp-like crustaceans, and various kinds of small fish.
Found in all the world’s oceans, most populations of humpback whales follow a regular migration route, summering in temperate and polar waters for feeding, and wintering in tropical waters for mating and calving.
- Killer Whales (Orca)
The orca has a striking color pattern made up of well-defined areas of shiny black and cream or white. The dorsal (top) part of its body is black, with a pale white to gray “saddle” behind the dorsal fin. It has an oval, white eyepatch behind and above each eye. Each whale can be individually identified by its markings and by the shape of its saddle patch and dorsal fin.
Another distinctive feature of the orca is its dorsal fin, which can reach 6 feet (1.8 m) high in males and is shaped like an isosceles triangle.
Males can grow as large as 32 feet (9.6 m) long and weigh 8 to 9 tons. Females can reach 23 feet (8.2 m) in length and weigh up to 4 tons.
The mouth of the orca is large and well adapted for hunting. It has 46 to 50 conical shaped teeth that point slightly backwards and inwards. The upper and lower teeth interlock, which aids in gripping large prey and tearing it into smaller pieces for easier swallowing. Depending on the population and geographic area, the diet of orcas varies.
The orca is found in all the oceans of the world, though they are more abundant in cooler waters. Unlike some other species of whales, which follow a regular migration route each year, the orca seems to travel according to the availability of food. They are one of the few species of whales that move freely from hemisphere to hemisphere.
- Common Dolphins
Common dolphins are colorful, with a complex crisscross or hourglass color pattern on the side; the long-beaked common dolphin being more muted in color. When looking at the profile of the two common dolphin species, the short-beaked common dolphin has a more rounded melon that meets the beak at a sharp angle, as compared to the long-beaked common dolphin that has a flatter melon that meets the beak at a more gradual angle.
Color patterns on the common dolphin are the most elaborate of any cetacean. The back is dark gray-to-black from the top of the head to the tail dipping to a V on the sides below the dorsal fin. The flanks are light gray behind the dorsal fin and yellowish-tan forward of the dorsal fin, forming an hourglass pattern. Its belly is white. There are large dark circles around the eyes connected by a dark line that runs across the head behind the beak and a black stripe runs from the jaw to the flippers.
Common dolphins can reach lengths of 7.5 – 8.5 feet (2.3-2.6 m) and weigh as much as 297 lb. (135 kg).
The common dolphin feeds on squid and small schooling fish. Common dolphins have been seen working together to herd fish into tight balls.
The common dolphin is found in all tropical and warm-temperate waters. The long-beaked common dolphin is found more in coastal waters; the short-beaked common dolphin is found in offshore waters and is the species that occurs frequently in the eastern tropical Pacific. Both long-beaked and short-beaked common dolphins occur in the Southern California Bight.
- Bottlenose Dolphins
This is a relatively robust dolphin with a usually short and stubby beak – hence the name “bottlenose”. The bottlenose dolphin (like the beluga) has more flexibility in its neck than other oceanic dolphins.
The color of the bottlenose dolphin varies considerably, but generally this dolphin is light gray to slate gray on the upper part of the body shading to lighter sides and pale, pinkish gray on the belly.
The dorsal fin is high and falcate (curved) and located near the middle of the back. The flukes are broad and curved with a deep median notch.
Adult length is from 8-12 feet (2.5-3.8 m). These dolphins may weigh as much as 1,430 pounds (650 kg) off Great Britain, though most are much smaller in other parts of the world. Males are significantly larger than females.
Bottlenose dolphins are found worldwide in temperate and tropical waters, absent only from 45 degrees poleward in either hemisphere. They are frequently seen in harbors, bays, lagoons, estuaries, and river mouths.
- Risso's Dolphins
This is a relatively robust dolphin with a rounded head, similar in shape to the more familiar pilot whale. They have an unusual external vertical crease in the melon (the organ in the rounded head used to direct sonar clicks) that runs from the front of the forehead to the mouth.
Adult Risso’s dolphins are usually dark gray with extensive white scarring. The scars can be scratches, splotches, or circular marks and, in some animals, can be so extensive that the entire body appears to be white. This scarring may come from bites from other Risso’s dolphins, squid bites, or parasites. As calves, their bodies are a uniform light gray, which then darkens to a brownish-gray in juveniles. Risso’s dolphins also have a white anchor-shaped patch, similar to pilot whales, on their ventral/chest area (from throat to stomach).
Length is typically 10 feet (3 m), although animals have been recorded up to 12.5 feet (3.8 m). Like most dolphins, males are typically slightly larger than females.
Reflecting the offshore distribution of this species, primary prey appears to be squid, although they have also been known to feed on a number of fish species.
Risso’s dolphins tend to prefer offshore habitats worldwide in the warm temperate and tropical waters of both hemispheres. They are not known to enter true polar waters.
- Pacific White Sided Dolphins
The Pacific white-sided dolphin has a short, rounded, thick beak containing 23 to 32 small, rounded slightly curved teeth in each side of the upper and lower jaws. This dolphin is energetic and quite active and is frequently seen leaping, belly flopping, and somersaulting. It is a strong, fast swimmer and enthusiastic bow rider, often staying with moving vessels for extended periods.
The Pacific white-sided dolphin is attractively marked. Its back is black and its sides are light gray with thin, white stripes that extend from above the eye along the sides, widening towards the tail; its belly is white. It has a black beak and lips and a black ring around each eye.
Its dorsal fin is tall and sharply hooked, and is located at the center of the back. The leading edge is black and the rear portion is light gray. Its flippers are small and curved and rounded at the tips. Its flukes are notched in the center.
These dolphins reach a length of 7 to 8 feet (2.1 to 2.4 m) and weigh 300 pounds (150 kg).
Pacific White-Sided Dolphins eat squid and small schooling fish such as anchovies, herring, sardines, and hake. It is believed they feed largely at night.
The Pacific white-sided dolphin inhabits temperate, coastal waters in the North Pacific, avoiding both tropical or Arctic waters.
- Hammerhead Sharks
The known species range from 0.9 to 6 m (3.0 to 19.7 ft) in length and weigh from 3 to 580 kg (6.6 to 1,278.7 lb). They are usually light gray and have a greenish tint to them. Their bellies are white which allows them to blend into the ocean when viewed from the bottom and sneak up on their prey. Their heads have lateral projections which give them a hammer-like shape.
It was determined recently that the hammer-like shape of the head may have evolved (at least in part) to enhance the animal’s vision. The positioning of the eyes, mounted on the sides of the shark’s distinctive hammer head give the shark good 360-degree vision in the vertical plane, meaning they can see above and below them at all times. The shape of the head was previously thought to help the shark find food, aiding in close-quarters maneuverability and allowing sharp turning movement without losing stability. However, it has been found that the unusual structure of its vertebrae was instrumental in making the turns correctly, more often than the shape of its head, though it would also shift and provide lift. From what is known about the winghead shark, it would appear that the shape of the hammer-head has to do with an evolved sensory function. Like all sharks, hammerheads have electroreceptory sensory pores called ampullae of Lorenzini. By distributing the receptors over a wider area, hammerheads can sweep for prey more effectively.
Hammerheads have disproportionately small mouths and seem to do a lot of bottom-hunting. They are also known to form schools during the day, sometimes in groups of over 100. In the evening, like other sharks, they become solitary hunters.
- Great White Sharks
The great white shark has a robust, large, conical snout. The upper and lower lobes on the tail fin are approximately the same size which is similar to some mackerel sharks.
A great white displays countershading, by having a white underside and a grey dorsal area (sometimes in a brown or blue shade) that gives an overall mottled appearance. The coloration makes it difficult for prey to spot the shark because it breaks up the shark’s outline when seen from the side. From above, the darker shade blends with the sea and from below it exposes a minimal silhouette against the sunlight.
Great white sharks, like many other sharks, have rows of serrated teeth behind the main ones, ready to replace any that break off. When the shark bites, it shakes its head side-to-side, helping the teeth saw off large chunks of flesh.
About Dana Wharf
Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching is dedicated to helping locals and visitors alike enjoy the unique wonders of Dana Point Harbor and the Orange County coastline. The warm waters right out of Dana Point Harbor are flourishing with sea life including whales, dolphins, harbor seals, and California sea lions. Our thriving coastal waters provide bountiful fishing of sand bass, calico bass, halibut, bonito, yellowtail, yellowfin tuna, bluefin tuna, and dorado. Whether you’re looking for boat rentals in Dana Point to enjoy a private boat charter, sailboat or catamaran, coming for an awe-inspiring whale watching cruise or wanting to create memories onboard our sportfishing charters, one thing is for certain: your trip through the beautiful and scenic Orange County coast will be unforgettable. Dana Wharf is conveniently located in Dana Point, Orange County, just south of Newport Beach, Huntington Beach and Laguna Beach – about 30 minutes south of Disneyland, an hour south of Los Angeles and an hour north of San Diego.
Proud Partner of the World Cetacean Alliance
The World Cetacean Alliance (WCA) is the world’s largest Partnership working to protect whales, dolphins and porpoises (cetaceans). Partners of the WCA aim to conserve and protect cetaceans and their habitats in the world’s oceans, seas and rivers, to ensure their continued survival.