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Difference Between Whales and Dolphins

January 14, 2019
Looking for fun facts about dolphins and whales? Click here to learn about the differences and similarities between dolphins and whales.
Dolphins and whales are integral members of the marine ecosystem. There are so many fascinating similarities between these marine mammals that we often forget their differences. To get the full scope on these amazing sea animals, let’s start by talking about the general differences between whale species.

Family Ties and Physiology

First thing’s first: all dolphins are whales, but not all whales are dolphins. That’s because the Cetacean order of sea animals encompasses dolphins, porpoises and what we think of as whales. And Cetacean is derived from the Greek word for whale, ketos.

It may sound confusing, but all dolphins are simply smaller types of whales. The whale order (Cetacea) is divided into several different families, one of them being Delphinidae (this includes all oceanic dolphin species). For example, Killer whales are the largest member of this dolphin family, so they are both a whale and a dolphin at the same time.

Because they belong to the Cetacean order,dolphins and whales share mammalian traits like warm blood, hair, and lung-based breathing. Other physical similarities include fins on their tails called flukes, streamlined bodies adapted for swimming and, in some cases, dorsal fins on their backs.

Let's Talk Teeth

Difference Between Whales and Dolphins

There are two types of whales out there, baleen, or Mysticeti, and toothed, also known as Odontoceti. In mysticeti whales, stiff plates of baleen grow down from the gums of the upper jaw.These plates are perfect for filtering vast quantities of water and trapping all the plankton and other small creatures inside their mouths.

Heavy Breathers

Difference Between Whales and Dolphins

When it comes to breathing, whales and humans alike are limited by their lung capacities. However whales’ lungs can hold much more oxygen than land-walkers, meaning they can stay under water for much longer before they have to come up for air. Whales also use blowholes to breathe—some even have two! The plankton-eating baleen whale has two blowholes, whereas whales with teeth have just one.

Whales and Wails

Difference Between Whales and Dolphins

Toothed whales have the ability to echolocate. This means they emit various clicking sounds through the water and wait for the rebounding sound waves to indicate where their prey is. Echolocation also enhances their communication abilities. Baleen whales such as humpbacks and blue whales communicate through a series of “songs,” but not echolocation. When it comes to the loudness between whales and dolphins, the competition is tight. Dolphins’ clicks, whistles and pulsed sounds can reach up to 220 decibels. For reference, 150 decibels is loud enough to burst a human’s eardrum. However, the sperm whale’s echolocation clicks have been measured upwards around 230 decibels.

Sea of Smarts

Difference Between Whales and Dolphins

Whales and dolphins share social patterns of communication such as teaching each other various hunting techniques, learning, cooperating with one another and even exhibiting ‘grief’ over lost members of their pod. Dolphins’ advanced communication abilities forge strong bonds within their pods, and dolphins have even been witnessed assisting injured or sick whales. One of the most impressive characteristics is the dolphins’ ability to call to each other using signature whistles. Dolphins use these unique whistles to communicate identity, location, and to address other individuals. We often use nicknames; perhaps dolphins use click-names.

Both whales and dolphins are incredible species that we should all continue to learn from, and about. If you are interested in the rare opportunity of seeing both in the same day, visit Seaworld Orlando and meet our resident dolphins and whales. Just be aware of the splash zone, as their flukes are known for being perfect for soaking guests!