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Whale • Order Cetacea
Whales are warm blooded mammals, that breath air through lungs and give birth to live young that are suckled on milk secreted from the mother’s mammary glands. Together with dolphins and porpoises, they are collectively known as cetaceans (order Cetacea), with whales being divided into two groups, the toothed whales or odontocetes (suborder Odontoceti) and the baleen whales or mysticetes (suborder Mysteceti).

Once hunted to near extinction and unfortunately still hunted by some nations, whales are now a very popular tourism attraction, drawing visitors from around the world to catch a glimpse of the annual whale migrations.

Check out some of the details about the different whales to be seen.


How many cetacean species are there in Australia waters?
There are currently around 44 recorded species found in the waters off Australia, 35 of these are toothed whales and 9 are Baleen Whales. The number of cetacean species recognised worldwide and in Australia is constantly changing with ongoing studies and research.

Species found in Australia include:
Toothed Whales - 19 species are from the family Delphinidae (including Dolphins, Pilot Whales and Killer Whales) and 12 are from the family Ziphiidae (Beaked Whales). Also included are the Pygmy Sperm Whale, Dwarf Sperm Whale, Sperm Whale and Spectacled Porpoise.
Baleen Whales - Southern Right Whale, Pygmy Right Whale, and seven species of Rorquals.

How to identify a whale or dolphin?
Trying to identify cetaceans out at sea is often challenging, as most species when sighted only appear for a short period and with only a small part of them visible at any one time. In addition, some species are difficult to tell apart without a thorough detailed examination. However, certain features and circumstances will assist in identifying cetaceans:

  • Length of the animal
  • Colouration, including any distinctive markings
  • Is there a dorsal fin, its position, shape and colour
  • Shape of the head (type of snout, if any)
  • Tail fluke shape and markings
  • Characteristics of the ‘blow’ (ie shape, height)
  • Distinctive behaviour (such as breaching, spinning)
  • If in a group, the number of animals present
  • Type of habitat sighted in (ie coastal, river, deep ocean)
  • Geographic location

Why do whales breach?
When a cetacean launches itself into the air, head first and then lands back in the water with a splash, this is known as ‘breaching’. Most species are known to breach at some time. Some species breach many times in a row and Humpbacks, renowned for breaching, may do so hundreds of times in a single bout. The exact function of ‘breaching’ is not known, although a number of explanations have been suggested including signalling, courtship display, a means of herding fish, displaying strength, dislodging parasites, getting a better look at boats or just for the fun of it.

Where and when can I see Whales? Click here...

(Source: Variety of sources including the Australian Museum, NSW Parks & Wildlife Service,
 QLD Environmental Protection Agency, Parks & Wildlife Tasmania)
If there are any factual errors, please email us.

Scientific Classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Cetacea
Suborders: Mysticeti
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