Paddler’s Guide to Marine Mammals

One adorable Harbor Seal. Photo: Greg Smith
One adorable Harbor Seal. Photo: Greg Smith

Paddler’s Guide to Marine Mammals

Words by Rebecca Parsons

As paddlers, we have the unique opportunity to explore one of the biggest and most amazing ecosystems on the planet: the ocean. And if we’re lucky, our paddle strokes will bring us over sea lions engaged in a morning hunt, a pod of dolphins frolicking in each other’s company, or give us an up-close view to a breaching whale. It’s moments like these that make paddling so special and leave us itching to share our tales with family and friends. But more often than not, people are unsure of what exactly they’ve encountered. We want to put an end to that. Here, we’ve compiled a list of common marine mammal sightings to give you some knowledge and insight about the creatures we are lucky enough to share our playground with.

Common Dolphins

Found in every ocean, there's a good chance you'll eventually paddle past a common dolphin. Photo: Leslie Kretschmar
Found in every ocean, there’s a good chance you’ll eventually paddle past a common dolphin. Photo: Leslie Kretschmar

Common dolphins earned their name due to the fact that they are found in every ocean in the world. These dolphins are very social and travel in pods composed of hundreds of individuals. The top of their body is dark gray and the underside is a whitish color, with a unique hourglass pattern on the side of the body. They are one of the smaller dolphin species and reach maturity between 7.5 and 8.5 feet in length.

Bottlenose Dolphins

A pod of bottlenose dolphins just having fun. Photo: Joanne Park
A pod of bottlenose dolphins just having fun. Photo: Joanne Park

You probably recognize this well-known dolphin species from movies and theme parks across the world. One of the larger dolphin species, these cetaceans can weigh up to 1,100 pounds and grow 10 to 14 feet in length. They are particular to the tropics, but can be found in waters ranging anywhere from 50 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. They are medium to dark gray in color, have a sleek, streamlined bodies, and always appear to be wearing a smile.

California Sea Lions

Sea lions lounging around. Photo: Justin Johnson
Sea lions lounging around. Photo: Justin Johnson

These light to dark brown pinnipeds are often referred to as the “dogs of the sea.” Sexual dimorphism is found among this species, with females weighing around 220 pounds and males weighing in around 850 pounds. They are typically found between Vancouver Island, British Columbia and Baja California, Mexico. Unlike seals, they have external ear flaps, are extremely vocal, and can rotate their hind flippers which allows them to “walk on land.”

Pacific Harbor Seal

One adorable Harbor Seal. Photo: Greg Smith
One adorable Harbor Seal. Photo: Greg Smith

Pacific harbor seals–found north of the equator in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans–are known for their beautiful, spotted coats. At full maturity, they typically weigh around 300 pounds with males being slightly larger than females. They are true seals, meaning they lack external ear flaps and use their small, front flippers to propel themselves forward on land in a worm-like fashion.

Gray Whales

The tail of a gray whale. Photo: Leslie Kretschmar
The tail of a gray whale. Photo: Leslie Kretschmar

Gray whales are baleen whales that are predominantly found in the Pacific Ocean. They typically grow to be 45 feet in length and are gray in color, with white patches of lice and barnacles across their body. They lack a dorsal fin and instead have a low hump, in addition to six to twelve knuckles across their back. These whales have the longest known migration of any mammal. Each year, they make the trek from their summer feeding site in the Arctic to their winter breeding grounds in Baja.

Blue Whales

The largest animal on earth, the mighty blue whale. Photo: Leslie Kretschmar
The largest animal on earth, the mighty blue whale. Photo: Leslie Kretschmar

Blue whales are the largest animals on Earth, reaching lengths of 70-90 feet and weighing between 200,000-300,000 pounds. These baleen whales have been found in every ocean across the world and are typically spotted swimming alone or in small groups. Their bodies are long and streamlined, with small dorsal fins and long, thin pectoral fins. They earned their name due to the fact that they are bluish-gray in color, but when spotted under the water their body shimmers a magnificent blue.

Humpback Whales

Nothing like a breaching humpback whale. Photo: Joanne Park
Nothing like a breaching humpback whale. Photo: Joanne Park

These baleen whales are found in every ocean worldwide, typically along the edges of polar ice. They earned the name “humpback” because of the hump-like shape of their dorsal fin. They have long, wing-like pectoral fins and are typically gray to black in color, except for a portion of the fins and underside of the body. This particular whale species is popular among humans because they breach regularly and slap the water with their fins and fluke as a form of communication.

Source: The Marine Mammal Center (http://www.marinemammalcenter.org/)

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