The information provided below is from the 2001 Sea Creatures of the Santa Barbara Channel / Marine Mammal
Guide. This guide contains detailed information on 16 of the most commonly seen marine mammals along the CA coast. The information provided is a combination of facts and figures from a number of government, nonprofit, and academic publications as well as first-hand observations of local whale watching captains and Santa Barbara photographer and naturalist, Eric Zimmerman.
Please note that although the animal dimensions, weights, and population numbers used in this guide have been extensively researched, they should only be considered as “best estimates”. Little is actually known about the majority of marine mammals because they spend most of their time under the water’s surface, are widely distributed throughout the world’s oceans, and because of their shear scale of size.
belong to the mammalian order Cetacea, and are divided
into two suborders, Mysticeti (baleen whales) and
Odontoceti (toothed whales). There are currently 79
scientifically recognized cetacean species, possibly
whales include the Blue, Finback, Humpback, and Gray
species and have no teeth as they are filter feeders.
They mainly feed on amphipods like Krill, while some
prefer to herd and then gulp down schools of fish.
Their filters are baleen plates, which are like huge
fringed brushes growing down from the upper jaws.
Other distinguishing characteristics include a double
blowhole, a symmetrical skull, right and left halves
of the lower jaw are unfused, and most have long,
whales are usually small to medium sized (excluding
the Sperm whale) and include all dolphins and
porpoises. All members of this suborder have teeth,
varying in number from 1 on each side of the lower jaw
to 260 total. Their skull is bilaterally asymmetrical
and it supports a round, fatty organ called the melon,
which is used for echolocation. Other distinguishing
characteristics include a single blowhole, a fused
lower jaw, and the fact that they catch their prey
(fish, squid, and other cetaceans) with their teeth.
are some Amazing Whale Facts:
Blue whale's tongue is about the size and weight of a
full grown African Elephant, and its heart (~1,500
lbs) is equal to the size of a Volkswagon Beetle.
The Blue whale is the largest animal to have ever
lived on Earth, even bigger than the largest known
dinosaur. The longest scientifically measured Blue
whale was 110 feet (33.5 m) in length and the heaviest
was 209 tons (190,000 kg), equal to approximately 35
Baleen whales exchange 80% to 90% of their lung air
volume with each breath, while humans exchange only
about 17% to 20% of air with each breath.
Deepest recorded dive by any whale was a Sperm whale
at 10,000 feet. It also has the longest dive at 2 hrs,
5 min. The deepest dive recorded from a Humpback whale
was 900 feet.
When sailors first witnessed Orcas attacking other
whales, they called them Whale Killers. Over time, the
name some how got reversed to their current nickname,
Killer Whales. To date, there is no record of an Orca
ever attacking or harming a human in the wild.
Whales are able to grow to such enormous sizes because
their weight is supported by the water. Unlike land
mammals, whose bones are hard and strong, whale bones
are soft and porous and are also used to help store
food reserves in the form of oil.
The word Mysticeti is derived from the Greek word for
moustache, mystax. This name most likely refers to the
hairy appearance of the baleen plates that they have
instead of teeth.
The Humpback whale’s flippers can grow as long as 17
feet, longer than the flippers of any other whale. Its
scientific name is Megaptera, meaning long winged.
Whale (Eschrichtus robustus)
Best known for their annual 10,000+ mile round
Male: 36.5-48 feet long (11-14.5 m)
tons (27,272-33,636 kg)
Female: 38-49´ feet long (11-15 m)
tons (27,272-35,455 kg)
15´ feet long (4.6 m)
lbs (~680 kg)
Habits: Averaging speeds of 3-6 mph, they
leave Alaskan waters around mid-November in
small groups, staying within 50 miles of the
coast. They pass through the Channel Islands
and arrive at the lagoons of Baja, CA where
they mate and bear their young. They return
north in mid-January thru May, with newborn
calves and their mothers hugging the coast
where the water is warmer, shallower, and kelp
beds provide protection from
predators. They can dive up to 1,600´ (500 m)
and stay down for as long as 30 minutes.
Characteristics: Their body is quite stocky,
muscular, and a mottled gray color, with
newborns appearing a more solid gray. The head
is triangular in shape and they have no dorsal
fin, just 6-12 bumps or ridges along its back.
They often have an abundance of whale lice and
barnacles growing on their skin. The fluke is
approximately 10-12´ wide.
Habits: They mainly feed in the summer on
small benthic amphipods found within the mud.
However, they have been spotted occasionally
trying to feed on schools of Krill, small
fish, and kelp during their migration. Average
life-span is 50+ years.
SB Info: Hunted to near extinction, today
returned to their pre-modern hunting
population of ~26,000 and delisted as
CA Gray whale is known for its annual 5,000+ mile, one
way, migration from the seas off thecoast of Alaska to
the warm water lagoons of Baja, CA. The mapto the
right shows the typical route they follow. Because
Gray whales rarely feed during their six month
migration, they spend their summer vigorously eating
in nutrient rich waters to buildup enough fat reserves
to sustain them during their long journey.
whales are the only member of the Cetacea (baleen
whale) family that are benthic feeders, or animals
that eat food they find at the bottom of the ocean.
They eat tiny shrimp-like animals called Amphipods,
typically ranging in size from 2 to 50 mm. They do so
by diving to the bottom of the ocean, normally not
exceeding a depth of 500 feet, turning onto their
right side, and then scooping up a mouth full of the
soft sediment and mud. They then begin to rise to the
surface and use their tongue to push the muddy water
out of their mouth while filtering and trapping the
Amphipods in their baleen. Finally, they collect their
catch by licking the baleen with their tongue and then
Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)
Known for its elongated flippers, breaching,
Male: 36-58 feet long (11-17.5 m)
tons (27,270-38,180 kg)
Female: 36-63 feet long (11-20 m)
tons (27,270-40,000 kg)
13.5 + feet long (4 m+)
ton (907 kg)
Habits: Although generally slow moving at
4-7.5 mph (6-12 km/h), they are capable of
impressive bursts of speed which allows them
to perform aerobatic feats such as breaching.
They’re considered the most gregarious of
all the baleen whales. The CA herd (estimated
at 800 animals) feeds in the summer months
along the CA, Oregon, and Washington coasts
and then migrate south in the winter to
coastal Mexico to breed.
Characteristics: Black or dark gray with a
low, stubby, hooked dorsal fin and mostly
white, extremely long pectoral flippers. Body
is stocky with a slender head and a broad
fluke (12-14´) with white markings and
serrated, irregular edges. They have large
bump like knobs on their head and barnacles
are often attached to their head, chin, fins,
Habits: Feed on various schooling fish and
invertebrates such as Krill. Life-span is
~45-50+ years and females give birth during
the winter once every 2 years.
Info: Found in all oceans and, except when
migrating across open seas, they remain in
close to continental shores and islands.
Population is extremely endangered (pre-modern
hunting #’s were 100,000+) with only ~10,000
Whale (Balaenoptera musculus)
The largest animal to have ever lived on the
Male: 65-87 feet long (20-26 m)
tons (63,600-130,360 kg)
Female: 68-90 feet long (21-28 m)
tons (63,600-150,000 kg)
19.5 + feet long (5.9 m+)
tons (2,722 kg)
Habits: Little is known about their migration
patterns, but since 1990 they have gathered in
the Santa Barbara Channel to feed between
late-May and mid-September. Capable of diving
to depths greater than 1,700´ and staying
down for up to an hour, they normally don’t
exceed 500´ (152 m), the maximum depth their
food, Krill, can survive. They are capable of
reaching speeds of 20 mph (31 km/h) when
swimming just below the surface.
Characteristics: Color is a bluish-gray with
light grayish patches all across their smooth,
growth free, skin. They are long and slender
looking, very streamlined, and have a broad
head and a small triangular dorsal fin 1 foot
high located 2/3 down its back. Their spout nd
is 22-25´ across.
Habits: As a baleen whale, they almost
exclusively feed on a small crustacean called
Krill (no more than 1.5 inches in length),
eating an average of 2-6 tons per day
throughout the summer months. They are
believed to live well over 70+ years of age.
Info: The SB Channel has become one of the
best locales in the world for viewing Blues.
Population is extremely endangered, with only
~2,100 found off of CA in the summer and no
more than 12,000-13,000 total worldwide.
Most abundant baleen whale alive today
Male: 22-32´ (6.7-9.8 m)
tons (5,455-7,275 kg)
Female: 24-35´ (7.3-11 m)
tons (5,455-8,180 kg)
8´+ (2.4 m+)
lbs (365-455 kg)
Habits: When surfacing to breath, they are the
only baleen whale to display both their
blowhole and dorsal fin at the same time. A
fast swimmer, they can achieve 18-21 mph
(29-34 kph) in bursts. Minke whales are
difficult to spot as they have an indistinct
blow, surface in a stealth-like rolling
motion, and seldom raise their fluke above the
Characteristics: The smallest of the baleen
whales with a slim, streamlined body and a
sharply pointed head. They often have white
markings on their flippers and the dorsal fin
is fairly tall, curved, and pointed at the
Habits: Normally spotted alone or in pairs,
feeding primarily on Krill. Estimated
life-span is ~45 years and it is believed
females give birth once every 2 years.
Info: They are found in all oceans and have an
estimated population between 500,000 to 1
million. Because of their large numbers, a few
countries such as Japan and Norway still hunt
them today. They are most often seen locally
throughout the summer months, but chances are,
once spotted, they will rarely stick around.
It is currently unknown how many visit the
Santa Barbara Channel each year.
Whale (Balaenoptera physalus)
The Fin whale is the second largest whale
after the Blue whale
Male: 60-78 feet long (19-25 m)
tons (54,420-117,910 kg)
Female: 63-80 feet long (20-26 m)
tons (54,420-126,980 kg)
14-20 feet long (5.5-6.5 m)
tons (1,814-2,720 kg)
Habits: They’re nicknamed the “greyhounds
of the sea” as they are capable of bursts of
speed up to 23 mph (37 km/h). They rarely
raise their fluke when diving and can reach
depths up to 800´ (230 m), averaging 5-15
minutes. They have a defined ridge along their
tail stock and are most often found alone or
occasionally in groups of 3-7 animals.
Characteristics: Their blow is tall and in the
shape of an inverted cone. The head is
flattened, with the right lower jaw a whitish
color and the left a more gray to black. Their
body is long and sleek with the upper parts
colored gray and undersides pure white. They
have a prominent, curved, dorsal fin located
2/3 of the way back on their body.
Habits: Although they primarily feed on Krill,
they have also been observed circling schools
of fish, herding them into tight balls,
turning on their side, and then engulfing the
fish. Calves are born at 3-year intervals and
their average life-span is 60+ years.
Info: Found worldwide, typically migrating
from the poles to temperate waters for winter
mating, but only occasionally seen in the SB
Channel. Pre-whaling estimates put their
population close to 650,000. Current estimates
are only 100,000.
Second largest species of the toothed whales
Male: 17-29 feet long (5.1-9 m)
tons (6,365-8,189 kg)
Female: 15-26 feet long (4.6-8 m)
tons (3,635-6,365 kg)
6 + feet long (1.9 m+)
lbs (~180 kg)
Habits: Killer whales can travel up to 35 mph
(56 km/h) and are often
inquisitive animals. Breaching is common for
both sexes and those found along the central
CA coast are most likely part of a transient
pod. Numbers can range anywhere from 2 to 10
animals with an occasional 30 or more meeting
to form large “social” pods.
Characteristics: Recognized for its black and
white color. Black tops with white bottom and
a distinctive white patch behind each eye.
Dorsal fin in males can reach up to 6 feet
high while females have much smaller dorsal
fins. Both have black flippers & flukes.
Habits: Very versatile diet, known to eat
squid, fish, birds, sea turtles, seals,
dolphins, and will even attack large animals
such as Humpback and Blue whales.
Average life span for males is 30+ years and
up to 50+ years for females.
Info: Found all around the world. Resident
pods stay along the Alaskan, Canadian, and
Washington coasts year round; oceanic pods
live far offshore; and transients (the most
common Orcas spotted around CA) roam over
large distances in search for prey. The total
worldwide population is estimated to be well
2001 All rights reserved. This guide and all
photographs are the property of Eric Zimmerman and may
not be reproduced in any form without written