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Whales and Dolphins to Look for While Exploring the Banda Sea’s Coral Reefs

By Huntley Penniman

Jungle-capped limestone islands dot the seascape, and breathtaking white beaches contrast sharply with the crystal blue water of the Banda Sea. Beneath the waves, fish of all sizes swim around brilliant corals in the shallow waters, while deep waters provide passage for a multitude of cetaceans. From the enormous blue whale to dazzling spinner dolphins, over 22 species of whales and dolphins have been spotted in the Banda Sea, making it the perfect destination for cetacean enthusiasts.


When visiting the Banda Sea, keep an eye out for these eight species of dolphins and whales:

1. Blue Whales

At over 100 feet in length and up to 200 tons, blue whales are the largest known animals ever to have lived. They spend summers in cooler waters filter feeding on krill, using sinuous baleen like a pasta strainer to separate water from food, and migrate towards the equator in the winter months to breed. Blue whales produce low-frequency sounds, and can be heard in deep water hundreds of miles away.

Blue whales appear light blue when seen through the water, and out of the water appear as blue-gray with some light-colored patches. On their backs, their dorsal fin is relatively small and located towards the back of the body, closer to the tail than the blowhole.

A blue whale takes a breath. © NOAA

2. Pygmy Blue Whales

Pygmy blue whales are a subspecies of blue whale. Their name is relatively misleading, as there is nothing small about pygmy blue whales. They have slightly shorter baleen plates than regular blue whales, and a much shorter tail so the dorsal fin appears even farther back. Pygmy blue whales tend to be slightly more gray in color.

3. Omura’s Whales

An Omura’s whale swims upside-down just beneath the surface of the water. © Salvatore Cerchio, Royal Society Open Science

Lucky whale watchers may have an opportunity to spot the elusive Omura’s whale. These whales aren’t known for long migratory patterns; they prefer to stick close to one place. They appear to be neither solitary nor social, residing in small groups that stay in single-digits in size while maintaining plenty of personal space. These groups stay within hearing distance of one another, and communicate with songs that are made up of a repeating, low melody.

Omura’s whales, like blue whales and pygmy blue whales, are filter feeders. They are long and sleek, reaching over 30 feet from nose to tail, and covered in asymmetrical gray and white markings. Their dorsal fin is small compared to their large body size, and located fairly far back along the body.

4. Bryde’s Whales

A Bryde's whale on the surface of the water. © Jolene Bertoldi [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Another baleen whale you may see in the Banda Sea is the Bryde’s whale (pronounced “broodus”). They are typically found alone or in pairs and usually feed near the surface of the ocean. However, they have been known to dive down to 1,000 feet in search of meals.

These whales are usually 40-50 feet in length, but may reach 55 feet. They have a small, hooked dorsal fin like a bottlenose dolphins’ dorsal fin.

5. Short-finned Pilot Whales

A pilot whale breaks the surface with a splash to take a breath. © Adam Li, NOAA

Short-finned pilot whales are distinct in appearance. They are a small, toothed-whale only reaching between 12-24 feet in length. They have a short rostrum, a slightly-square bulbous melon head, and are dark grey in appearance. Their body type is similar to belugas, but much more streamlined.

Pilot whales are extremely social, and are found in groups of 15-30 individuals. They don’t travel far from their home territory, and perform deep dives (over 1,000 feet!) to feed. Their diet consists mainly of squid, but can also include octopus and fish.

6. Orcas

Two orcas, also called killer whales, jump out of the water.

Orcas are some of the most familiar oceanic megafauna. Sometimes referred to as sea pandas, orcas have distinctive black and white coloring that stands out in the cetacean world. Orcas may reach 16-26 feet in length, with a tall, black dorsal fin that can reach up to six feet in height. There are three types of orcas: resident, transient, and offshore. Resident orcas tend to stay within the same range and maintain a strict fish diet. Transient orcas are continually on the move and predominantly feed on marine mammals. Not as much is known about offshore orcas, however it is speculated that one of their foods of choice is sharks. Fun fact: although they may be called killer whales, orcas are actually the largest species of dolphin!

7. Pantropical Spotted Dolphins

A pantropical spotted dolphin looks up at the boat from beneath the water. © NOAA

These friendly dolphins can oftentimes be spotted commingling with other dolphin species, and can be part of pods that are hundreds to over 1,000 individuals in size! Pantropical spotted dolphins are named for a spotted pattern that develops as they age. Adults weigh no more than 250 pounds, and less than 7 feet in length. They have long, slender rostrums and a distinctive countershading pattern - meaning they are lighter in color on their stomach and darker along their back to better blend in to their surroundings.

8. Spinner Dolphins

A pod of spinner dolphins leap out of the water. © Thomas Koenye

Spinner dolphins are aptly named for their dazzling display of acrobatics. They will leap into the air, performing pirouettes and turns that leaves viewers breathless. They are slightly smaller than pantropical spotted dolphins, reaching 6-7 feet in length as adults, but only about 160 pounds in weight. Spinner dolphins have grey and white coloring, with dark grey backs and white stomachs.

Travelers watch dolphins bow riding from the El Aleph, during the Banda Sea expedition. © Morrison Mast

Are you ready to sail alongside some of these charismatic cetaceans? For more information about our luxury expedition to the Banda Sea, see our Banda Sea: Reefs, Blue Whales, and Hammerhead Sharks Itinerary to plan your trip of a lifetime!

Our expedition takes place aboard El Aleph, a luxury ship purpose-built for exploration. © El Aleph

Author

Huntley Penniman is an Oceanic Society social media specialist and communications strategist. From diving to conservation and environmental communications, her passion lies in learning more about the wildlife that lives under the surface of the ocean. Huntley holds a B.S. in Biology from Boston College and a Master’s in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography.