Nearly half of the world’s dolphins and whales (cetacean species) spend their time in New Zealand’s oceans. At least 26 species of whale and 15 species of dolphins can be spotted here. Here are some identification tricks to keep up you’re sleeve, if you’re fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of one!
Bottlenose dolphins / terehu are easily identified by their short beak and hooked dorsal fin. They can be seen all around the New Zealand coast.
Common and Dusky dolphins
Other species of dolphins include dusky, Hector’s and Māui, the common dolphin, orca (killer whale), and the misleadingly named pilot whale.
Common dolphins have a distinct ‘hourglass’ pattern on their sides, below the dorsal fin. They can live in pods of up to 1000 individuals.
Dusky are easily identified by their sloping forehead and dramatic contouring. Duskies are considered to be one of the most acrobatic dolphin species and will live for over 30 years.
Hector’s and Māui dolphins
Hector’s and Māui are impossible to tell apart without DNA testing, but both are recognisable by their rounded, “Mickey Mouse” dorsal fin. They are the smallest species of dolphin in the world and are found only in New Zealand.
Pilot whales and orcas
Pilot whales (the dolphins) are often mistaken for orcas (also known as killer whales – coincidentally, also dolphins rather than whales). Pilot whales have a large, bulbous forehead and light grey or white streak behind their eyes that resemble angry eyebrows.
As for whales that are actually whales, there are five main types found in New Zealand’s waters: blues, humpbacks, southern right whales, Bryde’s, and sperm whales. The humpback whale is probably the easiest to identify of the lot, with their knobby heads and extremely long flippers:
Other whale species: Southern right whale, blue whale, Bryde’s whale, Arnoux’s whale.
Southern right whale
But how to tell a sperm whale from a blue whale from a Southern right whale?
If it’s got wrinkly skin and a square face, it’s likely a sperm whale. Blue whales have a small, pointed dorsal fin well at the back of their body. No dorsal fin? It’s likely a Southern right whale. They’re identifiable by the calloused white patches on their faces which are actually colonies of whale lice. While that might sound unpleasant, there is no evidence so far that these lice are harming the whales. The lucky lice get a home and a free ride all over the southern oceans.
There are many more species of whales to learn to identify, but don’t despair – there’s a quick guide available on our Whale and dolphin sighting report.
Seals and sea lions
Pinnipeds include seals and sea lions. Aotearoa have four main species of pinnipeds: the New Zealand fur seal, leopard seal, elephant seal, and seal lion. Kekeno / New Zealand fur seal are the most likely to be spotted around our coasts.
Kekeno were once on the brink of extinction. In 1978, they were given full protection under the Marine Mammals Protection Act, and now can be seen on rocky shores around the country.
Leopard seals / pakaka are easily identified by their leopard-like spots, large heads, slim bodies, and fantastic smiles.
New Zealand sea lions / pakake can sometimes be confused with a fur seal. Key things to remember: they are typically larger, chunkier, and have short whiskers.
The Southern elephant seal / ihupuku is sometimes mistaken for the NZ sea lion. A notable feature is their inflatable proboscus (snout). They are the largest of all pinnipeds, and the second largest marine mammal. Males of this species can reach up to 3,600 kg.
We want to hear about any marine mammal sightings you have while enjoying the ocean this summer.
Please visit https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/marine-mammals/marine-mammal-sightings/ to learn how to identify an animal and report a sighting.
DOC has guides for identifying protected species on our Resources for Fishers page.