Maui News

Whales, Dolphins or Porpoises?

August 30, 2019, 11:25 AM HST
* Updated August 30, 12:04 PM
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On Thursday when 10 small whales (and one whale calf) beached themselves on Sugar Beach there was some public confusion as to how these human-sized mammals were not dolphins or porpoises.

Whales? Aren’t they too small to be whales?

Not necessarily. These particular whales were identified by on-scene scientists from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) as Melon-Headed Whales. These whales are much smaller than the Humpbacks that are seen during whale season on Maui, and are a part of a group of cetaceans (a class of marine mammals that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises) as one of four “blackfish” that includes pygmy killer whales, melon-headed whales, short-finned pilot whales and false killer whales.

 

Melon-Headed Whale Image Courtesy NOAA FIsheries

All four of these whales have very similar features: a gray-black coloration, bulbous head without a beak, and falcate or “hooked” dorsal fin. This compared to dolphins having a beak and porpoises having triangular fins.

False Killer Whale Image Courtesy NOAA Fisheries

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The four types of whales are so similar that even scientists have trouble telling them apart.

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David Schofield, NOAA Marine Mammal Response Coordinator said, “They are sometimes at first glace difficult to speciate.  In fact today even though there was a bunch of us that responded to these animals, there’s still some debate whether or not these particular whales are are melon-headed whales or pygmy killer whales.”

Short-Finned Pilot Whale Image Courtesy NOAA Fisheries

Pygmy Killer Whale Image Courtesy NOAA Fisheries

 

 

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