What appears below is a listing of whales that frequent our
waters (off the coast of Massachusetts). For a complete list
of whale species, click
Whales are divided into two groups, the toothed whales
and the baleen whales.
Baleen Whales (Mysticeti)
This minke whale is a typical baleen whale. Baleen whales
are generally solitary animals. They use their baleen plates
(called "whalebone" by early whalers) to filter
small fish and plankton from the water.
The humpback whale (Megaptera novaengliae) spends its spring,
summer and fall months in northern waters, where it feeds on
the small schooling fish which occur here. Late in the year,
humpbacks migrate to the waters of the West Indies where they
mate and bear their calves. Humpbacks are easy to tell apart,
using the black and white pattern on their tail flukes. The
tail pictured here belongs to a famous female humpback named
Cat's Paw. The names we give to these humpbacks are based on
natural field marks on their bodies. Cat's Paw was named for
the white paw-like mark on her nearly all black tail. There
are about 550 humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine, many of
which frequent Cape Cod waters. The humpback is a large whale,
often reaching lengths of 40-50 feet. It is distinguished by
its long white flippers and the fact that it often raises its
tail high out of the water when it dives.
fin whale, or finback (Balaenoptera physalus) is somewhat larger
than the humpback, reaching lengths of 50-75 feet. It is also
a more streamlined animal, moving quickly through the water.
Fin whales can be individually identified by using a combination
of body characteristics: dorsal fin shape, scars, and -- the
most telling characteristic but also the most difficult to photograph
-- the subtle shadings and swirls on the right side of the whale
called the blaze and chevron. Fin whales are unique in that
they are asymmetrically colored; the whale's lower right jaw
is white and its lower left jaw is dark grey or black.
North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is the most
endangered of all the world's great whales. Once found in Cape
Cod Bay in huge numbers, there are fewer than 350 North Atlantic
right whales remaining in the world today. The right whale's
long baleen plates covered in a thick mat of fine hairs, help
this 45-50 foot animal to strain tiny plankton from the water
for food. Right whales can be identified by the differences
in "callosity" patterns on their heads and lips; these
callosities are actually bumps covered with tiny whale "lice".
Right whales are found in the Massachusetts area in the late
winter and early spring months. They use these waters as a feeding
ground and nursery for mothers with young calves.