It’s a whale! No, it’s a dolphin! Wait…
Perhaps this question has never occurred to you. We tend to picture two very different looking animals when we think of a dolphin vs a whale, and the majority of you would probably say that you can decipher the difference. But there's more than meets the eye...
Spoiler alert, dolphins are in fact whales, or part of the whale family. Stay with us, this gets a little confusing. Scientifically, all whales, dolphins and porpoises are classified as Cetacea. And within Cetacea are two suborders: baleen whales and toothed whales. Baleen whales include the really big ones, such as blue whales and humpbacks. Toothed whales include dolphins and orcas, or killer whales, as they’re often known. In fact, orcas are the largest dolphins, growing to be about 32 feet (10 meters) long. Many dolphins only average eight to nine feet (2-3 meters) in length.
So yes, orcas are dolphins, and dolphins are whales!
This might blow you away
Because they’re mammals, both dolphins and baleen whales need to surface to breathe, doing this through their blowholes. They’re also incredibly intelligent. Both animals can produce vocalizations to communicate, but since whales communicate mostly underwater, you might not be as familiar with their sounds as compared to those distinct clicks or whistles more commonly heard from dolphins. Dolphins also have the ability to echolocate, where baleen whales do not.
Food for thought
Despite their size, the interesting thing about baleen whales is they eat smaller food at a larger volume. In other words, they consume tons (literally tons) of krill or small fish, instead of a few larger fish. Dolphins, on the other hand, eat a variety of fish and crustaceans, like shrimp. The types of fish they eat depends on where the dolphins live and what’s available to them.
The pod life
Both dolphins and baleen whales often travel in groups. This is for safety, as well as to hunt for food. On average, dolphin pods can range from a few individuals to hundreds or thousands because of their very social nature. In contrast, humpback whales tend to be more solitary and travel with only one or two other individuals. The very size of whales makes them less susceptible to attack compared to dolphins. Both species procreate less than other smaller animal—resembling humans in that regard. Dolphins and baleen whales only have one baby at a time, but dolphins give birth every two to three years, while baleen whales might go two to five years or more. In terms of gestation, most dolphins are pregnant for 10-12 months depending on the species, while orcas carry their calves for 18 months!
Are they endangered?
Like too many animals today, climate change and human encroachment are putting marine mammals in danger. Human-made threats like ship strikes and entanglement in fishing nets are pushing species to the brink of extinction. There are only 9-10 remaining vaquitas left in the world and the Maui dolphin in New Zealand has about 55 individuals remaining. With fewer than 360 individuals left, the North Atlantic right whale is also critically endangered.
How you can help
Help us protect our ocean and the animals that call it home. IFAW has pioneered field health assessments and treatments for stranded dolphins and whales that enable the animals to not only survive, but thrive after release. Since 1998, we’ve increased our dolphin release rates from 15% to more than 79%. Today, IFAW is a leading expert resource in rescuing stranded and entangled marine animals, sharing our knowledge with other professionals around the world. Together, we’re developing a global stranding network that can help protect marine animals everywhere.