Are Whales Found
off the Coast of North Carolina?
26 November 1997
|Of the ten "great"
whales, animals in the order Cetacea reaching
lengths of 30 feet or more, eight have been reported
in the coastal waters of North Carolina. Seven of
these giant creatures are baleen whales, the biggest
animals that have ever lived. Baleen whales are members
of the suborder Mysticeti or "mustached
whales," so called because of the bristle-like
strands of baleen attached to their upper jaws instead
of teeth. The baleen is used during feeding to strain
krill or other plankton.
examine Salt and Salsa,
life-size replicas of a humpbackwhale and her calf,
the highlight of the exhibit, One Whale's Tale,
at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. One
Whale's Tale takes visitors through a year in
the life of Salt, the world's most photographed
The minke whale, sei whale, Bryde's whale, fin whale, blue
whale, hump-back whale and the northern right whale have
all been sighted in North Carolina waters. The minke whale
is the smallest of the baleens, attaining a maximum length
of 33 feet. The blue whale is the largest of all animals,
reaching a maximum length of 98 feet and an adult body weight
of 100 tons.
Most baleen whales are great travelers, making seasonal
migrations from feeding grounds near the poles to tropical
breeding areas. It is during these migratory treks that
whale watchers are most likely to see one of these giants
of the sea.
One of the most predictable migrators of the great whales
is the humpback. The upcoming winter months of December
and January are prime times to spot these huge creatures
as they travel southward through our coastal waters to the
warmer waters of the Caribbean where they will breed or
give birth. In the spring, humpbacks return north to the
cool polar waters for a summer of feeding where they
will consume over 1.5 tons of food a day! During this northward
migration, humpbacks pass through the waters of North Carolina
during March and April.
Humpbacks tend to swim near shore during migration, increasing
the likelihood of a sighting. They are the most animated
and acrobatic of the great whales. Humpbacks lift their
40 ton bodies almost completely out of the water in a dramatic
behavior called breaching. These graceful giants are also
the most vocal of the baleen whales, producing an elaborate
melody of moans, yelps, and chirps that make up the most
complex song in the animal kingdom.
The sperm whale, the largest member of the suborder Odontoceti
or "toothed" whales, is also a visitor to
North Carolina waters. Sperm whales, which reach a length
of 50 feet and weigh about 40 tons, remain widespread in
the coastal waters of the Atlantic despite a huge drop in
their numbers from whaling activity earlier this century.
Their smaller cousins, the pygmy sperm whale and the dwarf
sperm whale, are rarely spotted in Carolina waters but this
may be due to their preference for deeper waters.
More than 20 other Cetaceans, which also includes
dolphins and porpoises, have been recorded in the coastal
waters of the Carolinas. The most abundant Cetacean
along the Atlantic Coast is the bottle-nosed dolphin; other
visitors include the harbor porpoise and four species of
Spotting a great whale in North Carolina waters is a rare
and special opportunity. Their numbers are few because of
excessive whaling; many have been hunted to near extinction.
All of the great whales are considered endangered species
and are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and
the International Whaling
Great Whales Foundation