There are about 80 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises with 10 of those in the waters off Oregon's coast. These include the mighty gray whale, the awe-inspiring killer whale, and the charming and intelligent bottlenose dolphin.

Let's see how many you know.

Blue Whale

Balaenoptera musculus

Blue whales are occasionally spotted off Oregon, but usually no closer than 10 miles offshore.

Behavior: Blue whales tend to be more solitary than other whale species. However, they have been seen together

in small groups of two to four. They cruise the ocean at about 20 miles per hour. Their vocalizations can be heard from 1,000 miles away. These vocalizations are thought to be used as communication as well as sonar navigation.

Body: Gray to blue coloration. If conditions are right, diatoms (planktonic photosynthesizers) will build up on their stomachs and make their undersides look yellowish. They are long and thin and have a small dorsal fin. The spout is made of air and condensed water vapor that is released from the whale’s nose, which is on top of its head. Their spout can reach more than 30 feet high.

Diet: Despite their huge size, they feed on relatively small prey, primarily tiny shrimp-like animals called krill. They can eat up to 7,715 pounds of krill per day.

Lifespan: Between 80 and 90 years. *Endangered

Habitat: They migrate between feeding areas along the west coast of the United States and Canada and breeding and calving grounds off Mexico and Central America.

Ecosystem role:  Through their defecation, whales fertilize the microscopic phytoplankton, upon which all sea life depends.

Photo Credit: Norbert Wu/Minden Pictures

Gray Whale

Eschrichtius robustus

The most common whale off the Oregon coast is the gray whale. Approx. 200 resident gray whales live nearly year-round off the Oregon coast, and a winter and spring migration brings about 18,000 more.

Behavior: They travel alone or in small, unstable groups. Long-term bonds between individuals are thought to be rare.

Body: Gray whales are mottled gray in color with a narrow V-shaped head.  They grow to a length of about 45 feet, weighing up to 80,000 lbs, and produce sounds including moans,  rumbles and growls.  The most prevalent call is a series of knocking sounds.

Diet:  Amphipods and other small animals. They suck sediment and prey from the sea floor by rolling on their sides and swimming slowly alongside it.

Lifespan: Because of an absence of teeth (which can be used to estimate age in other mammals), it is difficult to tell the age of a gray whale.

Habitat: They migrate each year along the entire West Coast of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

Ecosystem role: They create gigantic mud plumes that re-suspend large volumes of nutrients, which in turn enrich life on the seafloor and bring a bounty of bottom-dwelling crustaceans to the surface for seabirds to feast on.

Photo Credit: NOAA

Minke Whale 

Balaenoptera acutorostrata

Behavior: Minke whales are usually sighted individually or in small groups of two to three, but loose groupings of up to 400 animals have been seen in feeding areas closer to the poles.

Body: Minkes have a dark black or gray, sleek body with a white underside. They are often recognized by surfacing snout first and a small, weak, but visible, bushy blow that is about six to 10 feet high. The minke whale is one of the smallest baleen whales, growing to about 35 feet.

Diet: Minke whales opportunistically feed on crustaceans, plankton, and small schooling fish (e.g., anchovies, dogfish, capelin, coal fish, cod, eels, herring, mackerel, salmon, sand lance, saury, and wolfish). They feed by side-lunging into schools of prey and gulping large amounts of water.

Life-span: 40 years on average, though examples have been found living up to 60 years.

Habitat: Worldwide from sub-Arctic waters in north to sub-Antarctic waters in the south.

Ecosystem role: They are predators of krill, and may also be the host of several types of microorganisms.

Photo Credit: Siyabona Africa

Humpback Whale

Megaptera novaeangliae

Humpbacks have been documented travelling 3,000 miles between Alaska and Hawaii in as few as 36 days.

Behavior: Considered the acrobats of the sea, humpbacks often breach and slap the water with their tail and pectorals. They are also known for their beautiful "songs," which, although studied for years, are not well understood.

Body: The whales are mostly gray and can weigh between 50,000 and 80,000 pounds. A humpback whale's body can grow to 60 feet long, with females growing slightly longer than males.

Diet: Humpback whales can eat up to 3,000 pounds of food each day. Most of the food is tiny crustaceans (such as krill), plankton, and small fish.

Lifespan: 40 to 50 years

Habitat: Although humpback whales can swim to any coastline in the United States, only Hawaii and Alaska have large populations of humpback whales appearing regularly each year.

Ecosystem role: They help regulate the flow of food by helping to maintain a stable food chain and ensuring that certain animal species do not overpopulate the ocean. Even whale poop plays a large role in the environment by helping to offset carbon in the atmosphere.

Photo Credit: iStock.com/Martin Hristov

Sperm Whale

Physeter catodon

The sperm whale, also called a cachalot, made its biggest public splash in the guise of Moby Dick.

It is the largest of the toothed whales and possesses the largest brain of any animal.

Behavior: Its clicking vocalization, a form of sonar, is the loudest sound produced by any animal.

Body: Gray with wrinkled, prune-like skin covering a torpedo-shaped body. The blunt head of the sperm whale accounts for a third of its body length, and much of it is filled with a waxy, oily substance called spermaceti.

Diet: It is also the largest living toothed animal, feeding on giant squid, sharks, rays and fishes. Plunging to 9,800 feet for prey, it is the deepest diving mammal.

Lifespan: Their typical lifespan is 70 years, but some may live longer. *Endangered

Habitat: The sperm whale occurs throughout the world's oceans and in the Mediterranean Sea.

Ecosystem role: Whales recycle nutrients and enhance primary productivity in areas where they feed.

Photo Credit: Hiroya Minakuchi/Getty Images

What's the biggest animal in the world? That distinction goes to the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), the largest animal on Earth. The orca's (Orcinus orca) size of up to 31 feet (9.4 meters) makes it the largest dolphin. The sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), on the other hand, may not be the biggest whale, but it has the biggest brain to have ever existed on Earth. A comparison chart of whale sizes helps put it all in perspective!

Use what you learned above to test your knowledge. Who is who? 

Discussion Questions:

  • Which animals are endangered? How can we help to preserve this species?

  • What new fact were you surprised by? Why?

  • Which animals have you seen in person before? Did their behavior match what is written here?

  • Which animals interests you most?  Why?

Extension Activities:

  1. Choose an animal from this list to research more. How do they make their homes? Do they mate for life? Why are they endangered? etc.

  2. Choose two (or three!) animals from this list and combine them. Create a drawing of your new animal. Give your new species a name. Where does it live? What does it eat? What are its habits?

  3. Pick an endangered animal and search for organizations that support them. Why is it so important that this species be preserved? How could you get involved and help out?

Quiz Answers: 

1.Gray Whale   2.Sperm Whale   3.Minke Whale   4.Blue Whale   5.Humpback Whale

Sources: The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, Center for Biological Diversity,The National Wildlife Federation,The Marine Mammal Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration