The name Cetacean refers to any whale, dolphin, or porpoise of any species. There are two different groups of whales that exist : Suborder Mysticeti (baleen whales) and the Suborder Odontoceti (toothed whales). There are 76 known species of toothed whales, and 11 species of baleen whales. Baleen whales are named for the keratinous plates of baleen which hang from their upper jaw. These plates can be thick and bushy, or can be long and coarse, and are used to filter out and capture large amounts of shrip-like crustaceans or small fish from the water. Examples of baleen whales are the Blue whale, Fin whale, and Humpback whale. Toothed whales have regular teeth, and inclue the Narwhal, Beluga whale, all dolphins, porpoises, Sperm whales, and beaked whales. Toothed Whales feed on fish, squid, and marine mammals.
Cetaceans are mammals that spend their entire lives in the water. They share five common characteristics with all other mammals: They are warm blooded, they have hair or fur, they breathe air, and they give birth to live young, whom they nurse with milk. Cetaceans have also developed a blubber layer to insulate themselves from the cold waters, and they have streamlined bodies for more aerodynamic and efficient movement through the water. New York is home to many species of cetaceans throughout different times of the year. All of these species are protected under The Marine Mammal Act of 1972 , and some are protected under the Endangered Species Act as well. Information about some of the species of cetaceans that have been rescued off of Long Island is presented below.
Finback Whale (Balaenoptera physalus)
The Finback Whale is the second largest animal on earth, reaching lengths of 59 - 80 feet, and weighing in at around 30-80 tons. Finback whales are baleen whales, and are found worldwide. New England is one of their favored summer feeding grounds. These whales can be identified by the asymmetrical pigmentation on their head, their grayish-white chevron, their narrow rostrum, and their flat heads. Fin whales are usually dark gray to brownish-black in color, while the undersides of their flukes and flippers are a bright white color. The baleen plates of these whales are white in front and grayish-white in the back, and they have approximately 260-480 baleen plates per side. These plates may reach lengths around 27 inches, and are used to filter the krill, copepods, invertebrates, crustaceans, and capelin that they feed on out of the water. Fin whales are often found alone or in pairs, and sometimes in pods of up to 3-7 individuals. Fin whales are the fastest of the large whales, reaching a maximum swim speed of 19 mph, and their average dives last between 5 and 15 minutes. These whales are capable of diving to depths up to 755ft. Their blow appears as a very tall, narrow column of spray that can reach heights of 13-19 ft. Female Fin whales give birth to a single calf every 2-3 years, and their gestation period is 12 months. Calves are born weighing around 2 tons, and can be as long as 18-21 ft. The only major predator of the Fin Whale is the Killer Whale. Fin whales can live to be over 90 years old, and they are currently listed as an endangered species.
Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaneangliae)
The Humpback Whale is one of the most widely known baleen whales in the world, and their scientific name means "big wing of New England". Adult Humpbacks reach lengths of 30-60 ft and weigh 25-40 tons. These whales are found worldwide, most commonly in temperate waters, and New England is one of their favored summer feeding grounds. Humpback Whales are identifiable by their long pectoral flippers that have knobs on the edges, as well as their unique black and white pigmentation on the underside of the flukes. This pigmentation can be used by scientists to identify individual whales in the same way that we use fingerprints to identify humans. Humpback whales also have scalloped tails and flippers, and a knobby head with a pronounced hump in front of their low, stubby dorsal fin. These whales are widely distrubuted in all oceans, from the poles to the tropics, and are often found alone or in groups of 2-15. Humpback whales have between 12 and 36 throat grooves that fill with water when they feed, and can have up to 400 baleen plates on each side of their mouth. These whales eat kirll, crustaceans, euphausiids, and fish. Females give birth to a single calf every 2-3 years, and gestation lasts for around 11-12 months. When humpback calves are born they can be between 12-16.5 feet long and weigh up to 1-2 tons. Humpack whale adult males are well known for their long complex songs, possibly sung to attract mates, or to display dominance. The Humpback whale is the most energetic of the large whales, often breaching almost completely out of the water. They often raise their flukes up before diving, and can stay down while diving for up to 45 minutes. Humpback whales are currently an endangered species, and their main predator is the Killer whale.
Harbor Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena)
Harbor porpoises are one of the smallest species of cetaceans found around Long Island. The Harbor porpoise reaches lengths of only 4-6 feet when full grown, and weights of 99-110 pounds. These animals are small and chunky, with a minimal forehead and snout. Their foreflippers are rounded, and the dorsal fin is triangular in shape. Harbor porpoises are dark brown or gray in color, with a white belly and dark appendages. They have 44-56 spade shaped teeth in each jaw, and feed mainly on cephalopods, benthic invertebrates,capelin, hake, cod, and schooling fish such as herring or mackerel. Harbor porpoises are widely distributed, and can be found in coastal waters of the Northern Hemisphere. They usually travel in groups of 50 or more but can be encountered singly, in pairs, or in smaller groups of 5-10 individuals. Harbor porpoises are capable of breaching and porpoising fully out of the water, but they rarely display these behaviors. Females give birth every year to a single calf, with the gestation period lasting for 11 months. These animals can live for up to 15 years, and their main predators include Great White Sharks and Killer Whales. Harbor porpoises are listed as a species of concern in New York State.
Common Dolphin (Delphinus delphis)
The Common Dolphin is one of the most commonly seen cetaceans - hence its name. These toothed whales can be found around Long Island and worldwide in tropical and warm offshore waters. Common dolphins can reach a length of 5-8 feet, and can weigh between 165-300 pounds, with males being slightly larger than females. These dolphins have a dark, V-shaped saddle just below their dorsal fin on either side, and they have light gray or yellowish patches on their sides just forward of the dorsal fin. Their dorsal fin is tall and dark, often with a grayish or whitish area in the center, a dark stripe extending from the eye to the corner of the mouth, and completely white bellies. There are two recognized species of Common Dolphins: Short beaked and Long beaked, with the major morphological difference being the length of their rostrum. Common dolphins have between 80-120 small, sharply pointed teeth in each jaw, allowing them to feed on anchovies, deep sea smelt, lanternfish, and squid, among other things. These dolphins are the most gregarious of all cetaceans, and are commonly found in pods of 100-1,000 individuals. Female Common dolphins give birth to one calf each year, and their gestation period is around 11 months. These animals can live for 25-30 years, with sharks and humans being their biggest threats. Common Dolphins are protected in the U.S. under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.
Northern Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis)
Northern Right Whales are one of the rarest and most endangered whales in the whole world. These large baleen whales have a scientific name that means "right or true whale of the ice." Whalers named them Right whales because they were considered the "right" whales to hunt to get the most blubber and oil. Right whales reach lengths between 20-60 feet, and can weigh anywhere from 30 to 100 tons. These slow moving gentle giants can be identified by their lack of a dorsal fin, and by the hardened white or tan bumps on their heads called callosites. These callosities are raised, rough patches of skin that occur due to infestations of cyamids (also called whale lice). Northern Right whales can have up to 390 baleen plates on each side of their mouth, which can be up to 9 feet long in some individuals. The whales use these plates to feed on copepods, krill, euphausiids, and barnacle larvae. These whales have large heads and have a strongly arched upper jaw and a bowed lower jaw, as well as large, paddle shaped flippers, and broad, smooth, concave flukes that are deeply notched. Right whales are usually found in groups of 25-100 individuals, and are commonly found in North Atlantic waters. Female Right whales give birth to one calf every 3 years, with a gestation period of about 1 year. These whales can live to be over 70 years old, with Killer whales and humans being their biggest threats in the wild. There are only 300-425 Northern Right whales left in the world, and this species is considered one of the most critically endangered species of cetaceans.
Atlantic White-Sided Dolphin (Laghenorynchus acutus)
The Atlantic White-Sided dolphin is one of the most colorful species of all of the cetaceans. These dolphins can be recognized by their bold, well defined white and yellowish-tan patches on their sides, as well as their short, inconspicuous beaks, and their robust body shape. White-Sided dolphins are gregarious and very playful, and are known also as "lags" or "jumpers", as it is common to see these dolphins breach fully out of the water. White sided dolphins have moderately tall falcate dorsal fins, and have a very thick and keeled caudal peduncle. These animals have 29-40 teeth in each jaw, which allow them to catch and feed on herring, hake, squid, mackerel, and various benthic fish. The Atlantic White-Sided dolphin is found only in waters of the temperate North Atlantic, where it prefers shelf waters and deep slope and canyon waters, but these animals may tend to move inshore in summer months and offshore in winter months. Adults can reach lengths up to 9.5 feet, and can weigh more than 510 pounds, with males being slightly larger than females. These dolphins can live to be at least 17 years old, and major threats to their populations include humans and sharks.