Which Whales Can You Watch In North America?


If you have ever wanted to watch whales in the wild, then you need to know which whales it is possible to see around North America. There is nothing better than seeing wildlife live and in its natural habitat, and seeing a whale is something that you will never forget.

In this article, you will find out which whales you can see off North America’s coastline as part of our guide to get you ready for your next amazing whale watching trip.

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Baird’s Beaked Whale

The Baird’s beaked whale grows between 33-39 ft (10-12m) with a weight of 11-13 tons. They are huge and long, with a spindle-shaped body. They are dark-gray or brownish-gray, feeding on squid, crustaceans, and fish. 

They can hold their breath for as long as 67 minutes, with most diving deep for 30 minutes. They have a long gestation period of 17 months and give birth to one calf. They are often attacked by sharks and can be seen with scarring and bites, especially on older animals.

Best Place to Watch: Monterey Bay, Baja California

Beluga

The beluga is easy to spot due to its almost pure white, yellowish or pale gray color. They have no mottling on either side. They grow from 9.8-18 ft (3-5.5m) with a weight of 1,100-3,500 lbs. They have a gestation period of 12-14.5 months and give birth to one calf.

Beluga whales eat a wide variety of fish, squid, octopuses, and mollusks. They change color as they get older, with a pale gray at birth, then dark-brown to brownish-gray, then completely white at ten years old. They can be seen close to shore, and when stranded, can generally survive until the tide comes back in.

Best Place to Watch: Churchill, Nunavut, Inuvik, Cook Inlet, St Lawrence River and Gulf of St Lawrence.

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Blainville’s Beaked Whale

A member of the beaked whale family, Blainville’s beaked whale, is medium-sized. They measure between 13.7-15.4 ft (4.2-4.7m) with a weight between 0.8-1.1 tons. They feed on deep-water squid and some fish. They are dark brown or blue-gray with a lighter underside. This species of beaked whale has a flattened forehead, and the head at the blowhole is indented. 

They have a fairly long neck with an arched lower jaw. Blainville’s beaked whale is also known as the dense-beaked whale due to Hendi de Blainville stating that a piece of bone he had was the densest bone structure he had ever seen.

Best Place to Watch: Hawaii

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Blue Whale

The blue whale is a marine mammal, and they are the biggest animal that has ever lived in the world. They live in all the oceans of the world, with a blue-gray color. They measure about 29.9m (95 ft) and weigh up to 173 tonnes. This giant carnivore eats large quantities of krill and has a lifespan of 80 to 90 years. The blue whale is an endangered species.

Blue whales will generally ignore boats but will sometimes approach if curious enough.  Blue whales have a small dorsal fin set back.  Their amazing size can generally identify blue whales.

Best Place to Watch: Monterey Bay, Baja California, California, St Lawrence River and Gulf of St Lawrence.

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Bowhead Whale

Bowhead whale

The bowhead whale grows between 45-65 ft (14-20m) and weighs between 65 and 110 tons. Female whales are larger than males. They live mainly on krill, copepods, and other small and medium-sized crustaceans. They are slow swimmers but can breach, flipper-slap, bobtail, and spy hop. 

Bowhead whales give birth to a single calf after a gestation period of 13-14months. They are named for their enormous, distinctive bow-shaped skull. They are well adapted to life in freezing temperatures and can break through the ice to create their breathing holes.

Best Place to Watch : Nunavut, Inuvik

Bryde’s Whale

Bryde’s whales grow between 38-54 ft (11.5-16.5m) and weigh between 13-45 tons. They eat anchovy, herring and mackerel, crabs, squid, and other invertebrates. They are inquisitive and can approach whale-watching boats. When the Bryde’s whale breaches from the water, they leave vertically, then arch their back in mid-air. 

Bryde’s whales do not migrate long distances between feeding and breeding grounds and stay in tropical and subtropical waters all year. They have a slender body with three ridges that are parallel on its head. The sides of the head and the lower jaw are the same color.

Best Place to Watch: Baja California

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Cuvier’s Beaked Whale

Cuvier’s beaked whales grow between 18-23 ft (5.5-7m) with a weight of between 2.2 – 3.9 tons. They feed on squid, fish, and crustaceans. They generally have scarring and shark bits on the gray or reddish-brown body. They have a sloping forehead and a slight concave head. 

Cuvier’s beaked whales are known to breach but will generally avoid boats, although they are one of the most-watched beaked whales. Although they may be seen alone, groups of seven may travel together. Groups of 25 have been seen together, although this is rare.

Best Place to Watch: Hawaii, Eastern Seaboard, Monterey Bay, Baja California.

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Dwarf Spem Whale

The dwarf sperm whale measures 6.9-8.9 ft (2.1-2.7m) with a weight between 300-600 lb. They are similar in looks to the pygmy sperm whale but have a squarish head, flatter back, and a more prominent, pointed, erect dorsal fin. 

The dwarf sperm whale has been said to resemble an upside-down surfboard when seen in the water. Dwarf sperm whales are usually seen lying motionless at the surface of the water. They eat squid and octopus, along with fish and crustaceans. 

Best Place to Watch: Baja California

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Fin Whale

The fin whale is a large whale growing between 59-88 ft (18-27m), although slightly smaller in the Northern Hemisphere. They reach a weight of 34-100 tons. 

There are several thousand off the West Coast of America. They have pigmentation on their heads that is different on both sides, rare for a whale. This coloration is said to be to confuse their prey. 

They are the second-largest living animal on Earth after the blue whale. Populations of the fin whale can be seen almost year-round in the Gulf of California.

Best Place to Watch: the Aleutian Islands and Pribilof Islands, New England, Eastern Seaboard, Alaska, Newfoundland, Bay of Funny, Baja California, St Lawrence River, and Gulf of St Lawrence.

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Gervais’ Beaked Whale

The Gervais’ beaked whale measures between 13.8-17.1 ft (4.2-5.2m) and weigh 0.9-1.3 tons. The females are larger than males. Both are medium-sized, with a spindle-shaped body. 

They are gray, blue, or brown on the upper side, with a gray that is paler underneath. They have a small head with a short beak and can have a dark patch around the eyes. 

Their foreheads are flattened, and at the blowhole, their head is indented. Their dorsal fin is shark-like, and they usually have scarring on the body.

Best Place to Watch: Eastern Seaboard.

Ginkgo-toothed Beaked Whale

The ginkgo-toothed beaked whale is a medium-sized whale, measuring 15.4-16 ft (4.7-4.9m) and a weight of 1.1 tons. 

Not much information is known about this species, but they are thought to have a lighter underside than the upper side and a spindle-shaped body. They have a beak that is white and an arched lower jaw.  

Best Place to Watch: Extremely rare, but thought to be around California.

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Gray Whale

The gray whale grows between 46-49 ft (11-15m) and reaches a weight of 18-40 tons, with females growing larger than males. Their diet consists of schooling, fish, crabs, amphipods, and mysids. They frequently approach whale-watching boats and have lots of surface activity. 

Gray whales have a single calf born after a gestation period of 12-13.5 months. They travel a considerable distance, sometimes up to 12,400 miles, to journey between their feeding grounds and breeding grounds.

Best Place to Watch: Alaska, Aleutian Islands, Pribilof Islands, Monterey Bay, Westport, and the Olympic Coast, Oregon, Baja California, Vancouver Island.

Hubbs’ Beaked Whale

Another member of the whale family which there is limited information on. Hubbs’ beaked whales are 15.4-17.4 ft (4.7-5.3m), with a weight of 1.1-1.7 tons. They have a spindle-shaped dark-gray to black body. They have a white cap on top of their head, and a short, white beak.  

Best Place to Watch: California but extremely rare.

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Humpback Whale

The humpback whale grows between 46-56 ft (14-17m) with a weight of between 28-45 tons. They approach whale-watching boars and are inquisitive. 

They are very popular with whale-watchers due to their breaching, lob tailing, spy hopping, and flipper-slapping. They have a gestation period of 11-12 months and give birth to one calf. 

They can be seen in many North American places, with Hawaii and Alaska, as perfect places to spot them.

Best Place to Watch: Alaska, Hawaii, St Lawrence River and Gulf of St Lawrence, New England, Eastern Seaboard, Westport and the Olympic Coast, Aleutian Islands and Pribilof Islands, San Juan Islands and Puget Sound, Monterey Bay, California, Vancouver Island, Baja California,

Minke Whale

The minke whale grows between 21-30 ft (6.5-9m) and weighs between 5.5-10 tons. Their diet consists mainly of krill and other crustaceans, and small fish in schools. 

They have a single calf after a gestation period of 10-11 months. Minke whales are the smallest and most abundant of the rorqual whales. 

Minke whales are slim, with a pointed head, and rarely show much of themselves through the water. There are three subspecies of the minke whale; North Atlantic, North Pacific, and dwarf minke whale.

Best Place to Watch: Alaska, California, New England, Eastern Seaboard, Vancouver Island, Newfoundland, St Lawrence River and Gulf of St Lawrence, Aleutian Islands and Pribilof Islands, San Juan Islands and Puget Sound, Bay of Fundy.

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Narwhal

Narwhals are easy to spot due to their tusks, with males generally being the only ones to grow a tusk. Occasionally they will grow two, and sometimes a female will grow a tusk. The male’s tusk can grow up to 9.8 ft (3m).

They measure between 12.1-14.6 ft (3.7-5m), weighing between 1,500-4,000 lb. Males grow larger than females. They have light and dark mottling, with a small head and short beak. 

narwhal

Narwhals change in color as they grow older, with old animals appearing entirely white. Young narwhals are blotchy gray or brown, turning gray before becoming black, then a mottled light and dark color before eventually turning white.  

Best Place to Watch: Nunavut.

North Atlantic Right Whale

The North Atlantic right whale is between 49-52 ft (15-16m), weighing between 34-78 tons. Females grow larger than males. They live mainly on krill and copepods. They are slow swimmers but can be acrobatic. Their behavior includes lobtails, flipper-slaps, and frequent breaches. 

The North Atlantic right whale is curious and approaches boats. Their name comes from this behavior, as whalers thought they were the ‘right’ whale to catch. 

They have a single calf after a gestation period of 12-13 months. They have no dorsal fin, a dark body, and a large head covered in rough skin patches.

Best Place to Watch: Bay of Fundy

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North Pacific Right Whale

The North Pacific right whale measures between 49-65 ft (15-17m) and 34-90 tons. Females grow larger than males, and both genders are almost identical in appearance to the North Atlantic right whale, although they can grow a little larger. 

They are one of the most critically endangered whale species, with an estimated population of 400-500 in the world today. 

Best Place to Watch: Aleutian Islands and Pribilof Islands

Northern Bottlenose Whale

The Northern bottlenose whale is a medium-sized whale. They measure from 19-32 ft (5.8-9.8m) with a weight of 6.4-8.3 tons. They feed mainly on squid and shoaling fish. 

They are dark gray or brown with a cylindrical bottle. They have a forehead that is squared off behind the beak, which is tubelike. They often approach boats and are quite curious. They have a single calf after a gestation period of 12 months.

Best Place to Watch: The Gully

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Perrins’s Beaked Whale

Perrin’s beaked whale measures between 12.8-14.4 ft (3.9-4.4m) with a weight of 1,500 lb. They eat fish invertebrates and deep-water squid. They are medium-sized whales with a spindle-shaped body, short beak, and a dark-gray upperside with a light underside. 

They are thought to prefer ocean habitats that are more than 3,300 ft deep. Not much is known about this species, with information coming from five stranded animals in California.

Best Place to Watch: Very rare.

Pygmy Beaked Whale

The pygmy beaked whale can be round around the Gulf of California.  They have a short beak with a white tip, with a small head with a bulbous melon.  They have a small dorsal thin two-thirds of the way back and have scarring on their sides.

Males are dark on the dorsal side and light underneath, with a lighter swathe breaking up the dark above the flipper.  Females are brownish-gray both on the dorsal side and below.

Best Place to Watch: Baja California.

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Pygmy Sperm Whale

The pygmy sperm whale grows between 8.9-12.5 ft with a weight between 700 -1000 lb. They eat squid and octopus but will also eat crustaceans and fish. 

They leave behind a squid-ink like substance in the water when frightened or startled, leaving a cloud in the water. Pygmy sperm whales are often stranded in places like Florida. 

Pygmy sperm whales look similar to the dwarf sperm whale but have a small, hooked dorsal fin and are more rounded in profile. They have a small body and are sometimes mistaken for sharks.

Best Place to Watch: Banderas Bay.

Sei Whale

The sei whale is large, measuring from 39-52 ft (12-18m), weighing between 17-45 tons, with females larger than males. There are no commercial whale-watching operations anywhere dedicated to watching this species. They do not gather in the same areas from one season to the next, as most whales do, making them elusive. 

They have a more varied diet than most other baleen whales, including krill, copepods, crustaceans, and schooling fish. They are mostly dark gray or brown, with a prominent dorsal fin.

Best Place to Watch: The Aleutian Islands and Pribilof Islands, New England, California, Newfoundland, St Lawrence and Gulf of St Lawrence, Baja California, Alaska, Nunavut, Eastern Seaboard.

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Sowerby’s Beaked Whale

Sowerby’s beaked whale is a medium-sized whale with a body length between 13-18ft and a weight of 1.1-1.4 tons. They do approach boats with breaching, spy hopping, and tail-slapping behavior. They are blue-gray, gray, or dark brown with an underside that is lighter. 

They have a small head for their body and a beak that has a straight mouth. They have a bulge in the front of their blowhole and a small dorsal fin towards their rear.  

Best Place to Watch: The Gully.

Sperm Whale

The sperm whale grows between 36-52 ft (11-16m) with a weight between 15-50 tons. They have a dark gray-body with a squarish head and a hump instead of a dorsal fin. 

Their blowhole is slit-like, and they can often be seen lying motionless at the surface of the water. They have a single calf after a long gestation period of 14-16 months.  

Best Place to Watch: the Aleutian Islands and Pribilof Islands, St Lawrence River and Gulf of St Lawrence, Eastern Seaboard, Baja California, Newfoundland, Westport, and the Olympic Coast, Monterey Bay, California, Oregon, Alaska.

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Stejneger’s Beaked Whale

Stejneger’s beaked whale is a medium-sized whale. They grow between 15.7-18.7 ft (4.8-5.7m), with females slightly larger than males. Their weight is between 1.1-1.8 tons. 

They can be seen in groups of 5-15 and eat mainly squid. Not much is known about them, with a single skull being the only evidence for a long time. 

Some are almost black, but most are brownish-gray with scarring on the body. They have a dark mask from the eyes to the blowhole, with the rest of the face being lighter. They have a small dorsal fin one-third from the back.

Best Place to Watch: Very Rare.

True’s Beaked Whale

True’s beaked whale measures between 15.7-17.7 ft (4.8-5.4m) with a weight between 1.1-1.5 tons. They feed on squid and some fish. There have only been a few sightings, so very little is known about their behavior. 

They are brownish-gray or bluish-gray with a lighter underside. They are a medium-sized whale with a spindle-shaped body. They have a dark patch around each eye and a short beak. They have a bulbous head, and at the blowhole is an indentation. They have a dorsal fin, which is short.

Best Place to Watch: Very Rare.

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References

Bernhard Grzimek, Schlager, N., Olendorf, D. and American (2003). Grzimek’s animal life encyclopedia. Detroit: Gale.

Carwardine, M. (2010). Whales, dolphins and porpoises. London: Dorling Kindersley.

Carwardine, M. (2017). Mark Carwardine’s guide to whale watching in North America : USA, Canada, Mexico, where to go, what to see. London: Bloomsbury.

Hadoram Shirihai, Jarrett, B., Graeme Cresswell and Kirwan, G.M. (2019). Whales, dolphins and seals : a field guide to the marine mammals of the world. London: Bloomsbury Wildlife.

Martin, T. (1990). The illustrated encyclopedia of whales and dolphins. Hodder.

Nowak, R.M. and Walker, E.P. (1991). Walker’s mammals of the world. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Perrin, W.F., Würsig, B.G. and J  G  M Thewissen (2002). Encyclopedia of marine mammals. San Diego: Academic Press.

Richard John Harrison and Bryden, M.M. (1990). Whales, dolphins and porpoises. London: Merehurst.

Williams, H. (1988). Whale nation. London: Cape.

Wilson, D.E. (1999). The Smithsonian book of North American mammals. Washington: Smithsonian Inst. Press.

May, J. (1990). The Greenpeace book of dolphins. London: Century.

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Nature.

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