There are plenty of animals that live in the world’s four oceans, but among the largest are whales — but there’s not just one singular type of whale. There are a multitude of species of whale, and they live in all of the oceans worldwide, from the Beluga whale that prefers the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean to the Humpback whale that spends the winters in the tropical waters near Hawaii.
Whales are marine mammals that live in water but need to surface regularly to be able to breathe, so it’s possible for avid whale watchers to get sightings of many different types of whales.
Here are 20 types of whales, including some of the most popular species and some that are more unheard of, and the best places in the world to try and spot them.
Featured image credit: Terry Howard
Humpback whales can live up to 80 to 90 years
Where are they found? Worldwide
Credit: National Marine Sanctuaries
One of the most popular types of whales, humpback whales, which can weigh up to 66 thousand pounds, migrate with the seasons, so they’re found throughout the world, with winter breeding grounds around the equator, in places like the Hawaiian island of Maui and locations in Central America. Some non-migrating breeds have been found in the Persian Gulf and near the coasts of Pakistan and India.
Orca (Killer Whale)
Orcas are technically a type of dolphin rather than a whale
Where are they found? Worldwide
Credit: Michael L. Baird.
The name killer whale is actually quite deceptive. Orcas are not a threat to humans, and there’s never been a recorded fatality between wild orcas and humans. The name’s also confusing because they’re also not whales. Orcas are the largest member of the oceanic dolphin family. While orcas are found worldwide, they’re most abundant in colder waters, like the ones surrounding the San Juan Islands in Washington, Iceland, Norway, Alaska, and Antarctica.
Beluga whales are also known as white whales because of their rare color
Where are they found? Arctic Ocean
Credit: Javier Yaya Tur
Beyond humpback whales and orcas, beluga whales might be one of the most recognizable breeds of whale because of their unique appearance. With their faint white skin and globular heads, belugas don’t blend in appearance-wise with other creatures, although that doesn’t take away from them being extremely social animals. Because the whales live in such cold waters, the best place to see beluga whales in the wild are in Arctic regions, like northern Canada, Greenland, and Norway’s Svalbard archipelago.
Sperm whales are the largest of all toothed whales
Where are they found? Worldwide
Credit: Gabriel Barathieu
A toothed whale has to be extremely large to be considered the world’s biggest, and sperm whales are just that. The largest males of the species can weigh up to 50 tons. Not only do they have large bodies, but sperm whales have the largest brains of any creature on the planet. Sperm whales are found in all oceans worldwide, but some of the standout spots to catch sight of the largest-toothed whale are Reykjavik and Húsavik, Iceland, Andenes, Norway, and off the coast of New Zealand’s South Island.
Blue whales are the largest animals to have ever existed
Where are they found? The Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans
Credit: Oregon State University
There’s no mistaking the Blue whale if you’ve ever spotted one — the whales, which can live to be up to 90 years old, are by far the largest animal that’s ever existed in the world’s history, often weighing up to 330 thousand pounds. As they’re found in every ocean except for the Arctic Ocean, Blue whales can be found in a wide variety of places, but some of the best locations for Blue whale watching during the summer are off the coast of California in places like Monterey Bay and San Diego, as well as Baja California in Mexico and the Azores in Portugal.
The Fin whale is classified as an endangered species
Where are they found? Worldwide
Credit: Aqqa Rosing-Asvid – Visit Greenland
The Fin whale was heavily hunted during the 1900s, which led to a drastic population decrease and the eventual classification of the animal as an endangered species. Currently, the global population of the Fin whale is estimated to be between 100 thousand to 119 thousand. As there are so few Fin whales, sightings are rare, but they’re most frequently found in the waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, near Greenland, although they live in every ocean.
Bowhead whales have been known to live up to 200 years
Where are they found? Polar arctic waters
Credit: Olga Shpak
The Bowhead whale is identified through its dark color and its extremely large head, which can be more than 16 feet long. This type of whale uses its large head to break through polar ice, as its main habitat is in polar waters. As the Bowhead whale is really only found in polar arctic waters, they’re most frequently spotted in locations like the Bering Sea, the Chukchi Sea, and the Beaufort Sea, including the waters off the northern coast of Canada.
Bryde’s whales are named after a Norwegian man, Johan Bryde
Where are they found? Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans
One of the most notable features of Bryde’s whales are their coloring — with a smoky gray body and a pale underside, as well as the whale’s flippers, which are notably smaller than other types of whales. Despite having been discovered by and named for a Norwegian man, Bryde’s whales tend to live in tropical and subtropical waters, not reaching as far north as Scandinavia. Some of the best places to spot Bryde’s whales are the Bay of Islands in New Zealand, as well as off the coast of Brazil and in the Gulf of Thailand.
The Gray whale is also called ‘devil fish’ because of its aggressive reaction when it has been harpooned
Where are they found? In the North Pacific Ocean
Credit: José Eugenio Gómez Rodríguez
The Gray whale migrates along the North American coastline, from the Bering Sea near Alaska down to the warmer waters of Baja California. Depending on the season, anywhere along the west coasts of Canada, the United States, and Mexico would be ideal for spotting Gray whales.
Antarctic Minke Whale
This whale was ignored by the whaling industry because of its small size
Where are they found? Primarily near Antarctica
Credit: Oregon State University/Ari Friedlaender
The Antarctic Minke whale is the most abundant baleen whale in the world because it was left alone during the heyday of the whaling industry, and the type of whale now numbers in the hundreds of thousands. This type of whale is found in all of the seas in the southern hemisphere, but as its name suggests, the best place to have a sighting of the small whale is near Antarctica.
Pygmy Sperm Whale
This whale is similar looking to a Dwarf Sperm whale; both are considered very rare
Where are they found? Worldwide
Credit: Bernard Spragg
The whale is rarely spotted in seas, but despite this, the best area to potentially catch a glimpse of one would be in the more southern reaches of the southern hemisphere, including off the coasts of South Africa, Chile, and Uruguay.
Male Strap-toothed whales use their teeth to compete for mating access to females
Where are they found? In the Antarctic Ocean.
These whales are known for and named for a large, flat tusk that develops in the males, as the female Strap-toothed whales surprisingly don’t retain teeth. As the Strap-toothed whale is mostly found in the Antarctic Ocean, an Antarctic cruise would be the best opportunity for spotting these whales. However, they’ve also been seen off the coasts of Argentina, the Falkland Islands, New Zealand, and southern Australia.
It’s internationally protected after more than 225 thousand whales were killed in the 18th and 19th centuries
Where are they found? Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans
Credit: Christin Khan
Because Sei whales are often found swimming near pollock, they’re named after the Norwegian word for pollock, “seje.” The whales are found in temperate waters in the world’s three largest oceans, but the best places to spot Sei whales are off the coast of the eastern United States, especially in the Gulf of Maine during the summer.
Long-Finned Pilot Whale
Pilot whales are very social and live in large pods
Where are they found? In the North Atlantic Ocean and throughout the southern hemisphere
Credit: Barney Moss
Due to their names, it’s easy to think that the only difference between Long-Finned Pilot whales and Short-Finned Pilot whales are the length of their fins, but they also have completely different habitats. Long-finned Pilot whales prefer cooler waters, like those of the North Atlantic and more southern parts of the southern hemisphere. One of the best locations to spot Long-Finned Pilot whales is near the Strait of Gibraltar and along the Atlantic coast of southern Spain.
Short-Finned Pilot Whale
The Short-Finned Pilot whale lives in groups, often ranging from 25 to 50
Where are they found? In tropical and temperate waters worldwide.
Credit: Martina Nolte
The Short-finned Pilot whale’s diet mainly consists of squid, so their habitat is in tropical waters where squid is abundant. The best areas to see the animal in the wild are off the coasts of the United States, especially surrounding the Hawaiian islands.
Southern Right Whale
The Southern Right Whale’s calluses on its skin work as a sort of fingerprint, and they can be identified through them
Where are they found? In oceans south of the equator.
Credit: Olga Ernst
In recent years, the Southern Right whale has begun to recover from years of whale hunting that decimated its population. The best place for spotting Southern Right whales is near the Valdes Peninsula in southern Argentina, as that’s where a third of the whales go to mate and give birth between May and December.
Blainville’s Beaked Whale
The whale can weigh between 1,800 and 2,300 pounds.
Where are they found? Primarily near Hawaii, the North Atlantic Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico.
It’s been difficult to track populations of the whales fully, so they’re broken up into three main categories — Hawaiian whales, Northern Gulf of Mexico whales, and Western North Atlantic whales. The best places to see the whales are near the Spanish island of Tenerife and the Hawaiian islands.
The whale species is named for Japanese cetologist Hideo Omura
Where are they found? In subtropical waters near Asia.
Credit: Salvatore Cerchio/Royal Society Open Science
Originally classified as pygmy Bryde’s whales, Omura’s whales weren’t classified as their own distinct type of whale until 2003. Sightings of Omura’s whales are rare, but the best place to catch a glimpse is near the southern coast of Japan from May through October, and Indonesia and Thailand from November through April.
Called the unicorn of the sea for the long tusk that protrudes from its head
Where are they found? Arctic Canada; Svalbard, Norway; Greenland; Russia
Credit: Ansgar Walk
It’s not as impossible to see the unicorn of the sea as it is to see a unicorn, but it’s still pretty tricky as Narwhals are only found in Arctic waters. The best spots to see Narwhals in the wild are near the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard and off the coasts of northern Canada, Greenland, and Russia.
North Pacific Right Whale
The North Pacific Right Whale’s total population is estimated to be 30 whales
Where are they found? Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea
Credit: Mark Hoffman and Bruce Long
These large, slow whales are named the North Pacific Right Whale because they were considered the right whales to be hunting. Their population was decimated throughout the 19th century, and now they’re one of the rarest animals in the world, with only 30 whales believed to be living. As the population is so low, it’s difficult to spot North Pacific Right Whales in the wild, but it’s only possible off the shores of Alaska and Russia, surrounding the Bering Sea.
When is the best time to view whales?
The answer is different for each whale species and where you’re trying to view them from. Humpback whales are found near the Hawaiian islands to breed and give birth from November through May, with the peak time being January and February. They’re spotted in the Pacific Northwest from May through September. In February, there are plenty of Gray whales in the waters near New Zealand. Blue whales pass by the Azores in April, and Sperm whales will be out near Iceland in July.
What type of whale has the largest population?
Many whale populations have shrunk and become endangered through a combination of factors, but especially because of the boom of the whaling industry throughout the 19th century. Due to their small size, the Minke whale wasn’t much of a target for whalers, and the whales were left alone by the whaling industry. Currently, Minke whales are estimated to have a population of around 600 thousand.
When did whales start receiving legal protection?
After many whale populations were destroyed due to whaling through the 19th century, some legal protections were adopted worldwide to help preserve the animals. The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling was drafted in 1946, in which 15 countries swore to regulate the whaling industry and set restrictions and limits on whale harvesting.
What will I see on a whale watch?
It’s not always guaranteed that you’ll see a whale on a whale watch, as the whale’s movements are dictated by their migration pattern. To give you a better chance of spotting a whale, go whale watching in your destination during peak whale season. Whales have several different behaviors that they may exhibit during a whale watch, including blows, when they expel a spray of water through their blowhole, and breaches, when they leap out of the water. Breaching is also sometimes referred to as cresting.