Whales & dolphins (cetaceans)

Clockwise from top left: sperm whale; humpback whale and calf; southern right whale; Maui's ... rel=
Clockwise from top left: sperm whale; humpback whale and calf; southern right whale; Maui's dolphin; sei whale; beluga whale
© Clockwise from top left: Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF; National Geographic Stock/Mike Parry/Minden Pictures / WWF; Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF; WWF / Will Rayment; Peter Duley / NEFSC / NOAA; Kevin Schafer / WWF-Canon
  • Common Name

    Cetaceans; Cétacés (Fr); Cetaceos (Sp)

  • Location

    Nearctic, Palearctic, Afrotropical, Indomalayan, Australasian, Oceania

Old dangers persist, new ones have appeared

Eight out of the 13 great whale species are still endangered or vulnerable after decades of protection.

Facing a multitude of hazards

Whales, dolphins and porpoises are succumbing to new and ever-increasing dangers. Collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear threaten the North Atlantic right whale with extinction, while the Critically Endangered Western North Pacific gray whale is at serious risk because of intensive oil and gas development in its feeding grounds.

Alarm is also growing over other hazards including toxic contamination, the effects of climate change and habitat degradation.

It's illegal, but it still happens: commercial whaling

Despite a moratorium on commercial whaling and the declaration of virtually the whole of the Southern Ocean as a whale sanctuary, each year over 1,000 whales are killed for the commercial market.

What WWF is doing

In order to help secure the future of the world's whales, WWF is developing an ambitious conservation programme for endangered whale species and populations.

Reduce the threats to increase their numbers

The WWF Cetaceans Action Plan aims to ensure that by 2012, a significant reduction of threats to cetacean populations that are either currently endangered, or are likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future, is achieved.

WWF is working for a significant reduction of threats to endangered populations of great whales as well as several smaller cetaceans.

The organization is also combating risks to whales by lobbying to bring whale hunting under the strict control of the International Whaling Commission, through field research, training and capacity building, conservation education, and by securing improved national and international action and agreements.

Through support to TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring programme of WWF and IUCN, the organisation is closely investigating and monitoring the illegal trade in whale meat.

Physical Description

There are over 80 species of cetaceans, a group made up of whales, dolphins and porpoises. Cetaceans are air-breathing, warm-blooded mammals that bear live young and nurse them on milk. They live their entire lives in the oceans and seas worldwide, inshore and pelagic.

Two categories of cetaceans

Cetaceans fall into two categories: mysticetes or baleen whales, and odontocetes, including toothed whales, oceanic and river dolphins, and porpoises.

Baleen whales

The baleen whales are named for their feeding apparatus, a series of transverse plates of comb-like baleen which descend from the roof of the mouth. Baleen is made of hard but flexible material, similar to that of human fingernails, rooted in the animal's upper jaw. The baleen act like a sieve, allowing a whale to strain food out of the water-food which includes small fish and plankton.

There are 13 species of baleen whales: blue, fin, sei, Bryde's, humpback, northern minke, southern minke, North Atlantic right, North Pacific right, southern right, pygmy right, bowhead, and gray. They range in size from the compact minke whale, whose average length is around 8 metres, to the gargantuan blue whale, which can reach lengths of over 33 metres and weigh up to 120 tonnes - as much as 32 elephants. The only great whale with teeth is the sperm whale.

Toothed whales

Toothed whales, dolphins and porpoises, are a diverse group of over 70 species. They range in size from the Hector's dolphin and vaquita, both roughly 1.5 metres long when fully grown, to the mammoth 18 metre male sperm whale. Some other examples are the two species of pilot whale, beluga whale, narwhal, finless porpoise, and the rather large family of beaked whales.

Baleen / ©: NOAA
Baleen makes up baleen plates, which are arranged in two parallel rows that look like combs of thick hair; they are attached to the upper jaws of baleen whales. Whales use these combs for filter feeding.
© NOAA

Habitat

  • Major habitat type
    Oceanic
  • Biogeographic realm
    Nearctic, Palearctic, Afrotropical, Indomalayan, Australasian, Oceania.

Status of cetacean species


  • Critically Endangered

    • Blue whale (Antarctic)
    • Gray whale Northwest Pacific population
    • Vaquita

    Endangered

    • Blue whale
    • Fin whale
    • North Pacific right whale
    • North Atlantic right whale
    • Sei whale

    Vulnerable


    • Beluga
    • Blue whale musculus subspecies - Atlantic population
    • Sperm whale

    Lower Risk (Conservation Dependent)

    • Antarctic minke whale
    • Arnoux's beaked whale
    • Baird's beaked whale
    • Blue whale (North Pacific)
    • Bowhead whale
    • Gray whale Northeast Pacific population
    • Northern bottlenose whale
    • Southern bottlenose whale
    • Short-finned pilot whale
    • Southern right whale

    Lower Risk (Least Concern)

    • Minke whale
    • Dwarf sperm whale
    • Pygmy right whale
    • Long-finned pilot whale
    • Humpback whale
    • Pygmy sperm whale
    • Melon-headed whale
    • Gray whale (species)

    Source: IUCN Red List

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