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Santa Barbara Channel Islands Sea Creatures Guide


Education Corner

Sea Creatures Guide 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.


Whales 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 more.

Baleen 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, streamlined bodies.

Toothed 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.

Here are some Amazing Whale Facts:

- A 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 adult elephants.

- 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.

Gray Whale (Eschrichtus robustus)

• Best known for their annual 10,000+ mile round trip migration

Adult Male: 36.5-48 feet long (11-14.5 m)

30-37 tons (27,272-33,636 kg)

Adult Female: 38-49´ feet long (11-15 m)

30-39 tons (27,272-35,455 kg)
Newborn: 15´ feet long (4.6 m) ~1,500 lbs (~680 kg)

Swimming/Diving 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.

Identifying 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.

Life-span/Feeding 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.

Population/Distribution/Local SB Info: Hunted to near extinction, today they’ve
returned to their pre-modern hunting population of ~26,000 and delisted as endangered.


The 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.

Gray 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 swallowing.


Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)

• Known for its elongated flippers, breaching, and singing

Adult Male: 36-58 feet long (11-17.5 m)

30-42 tons (27,270-38,180 kg)

Adult Female: 36-63 feet long (11-20 m)

30-44 tons (27,270-40,000 kg)
Newborn: 13.5 + feet long (4 m+) ~1 ton (907 kg)

Swimming/Diving 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.

Identifying 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, and fluke.

Life-span/Feeding 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.

Population/Distribution/Local 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 worldwide


Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus)

• The largest animal to have ever lived on the Earth

Adult Male: 65-87 feet long (20-26 m)

70-150 tons (63,600-130,360 kg)

Adult Female: 68-90 feet long (21-28 m)

70-165 tons (63,600-150,000 kg)
Newborn: 19.5 + feet long (5.9 m+) ~3 tons (2,722 kg)

Swimming/Diving 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.

Identifying 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.

Life-span/Feeding 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.

Population/Distribution/Local 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.


Minke Whale (Balaenoptera acutorostra)

• Most abundant baleen whale alive today


Adult Male: 22-32´ (6.7-9.8 m)

6-8 tons (5,455-7,275 kg)

Adult Female: 24-35´ (7.3-11 m)

6-9 tons (5,455-8,180 kg)
Newborn: 8´+ (2.4 m+) 800-1,000 lbs (365-455 kg)

Swimming/Diving 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 surface.

Identifying 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 end.

Life-span/Feeding 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.

Population/Distribution/Local 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.


Finback Whale (Balaenoptera physalus)

• The Fin whale is the second largest whale after the Blue whale


Adult Male: 60-78 feet long (19-25 m)

60-130 tons (54,420-117,910 kg)

Adult Female: 63-80 feet long (20-26 m)

60-140 tons (54,420-126,980 kg)
Newborn: 14-20 feet long (5.5-6.5 m) ~2-3 tons (1,814-2,720 kg)

Swimming/Diving 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.

Identifying 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.

Life-span/Feeding 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.

Population/Distribution/Local 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.


Orca “Killer Whale” (Orcinus orca)

• Second largest species of the toothed whales

Adult Male: 17-29 feet long (5.1-9 m)

7-9 tons (6,365-8,189 kg)

Adult Female: 15-26 feet long (4.6-8 m)

4-6 tons (3,635-6,365 kg)
Newborn: 6 + feet long (1.9 m+) ~400 lbs (~180 kg)

Swimming/Diving 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.

Identifying 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.

Life-span/Feeding 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.

Population/Distribution/Local 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 over 100,000+.

© 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 permission.



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