What are the Differences between Whales, Porpoises, and Dolphins?

Whales, Porpoises, and Dolphins are all cetaceans but there are differences between each species.

Narrow-ridged finless porpoise in japan: whales, porpoises, and dolphins

Finless Porpoise, Miyajima Aquarium, Japan. (Photo: ori2uru/Wikimedia Commons, cc 2.0)

Whales, Porpoises, and Dolphins are all members of the cetacean species. They are also referred to as placental marine mammals since they carry their fetus in their uterus during most of the fetal developmental stage. They feed, suckle and give birth to their young ones underwater exclusively.

These aquatic animals are also referred to as “Conscious Breathers” because they can decide when to breathe. This feature differentiates them from sharks. Most sharks need to keep moving around before they can breathe.

But in contrast to sharks, cetaceans can remain motionless in the water when they want to sleep. However, they do not sleep for long since they need to return to the surface to take air. Also, they have more tolerance for carbon dioxide than humans.

Data from the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) states that there are 88 species, 39 genera and 14 families of cetaceans.

Be that as it may, our attention will be focused on three of the principal members of the cetacean species; that is, whales, dolphin, and porpoise. The dolphin and porpoise are more related to each other than the whale.

Main Classifications Of Whales, Porpoises, And Dolphins

The cetaceans are classified into two broad divisions, which are:

  • Baleen whales.
  • Toothed whales.
  • Baleen Whales:

The whale belongs to this group. It is the group for the great whales of the cetaceans. Members of this group have baleen plates with which they filter their foods. They feed mainly on small species of fish and plankton.

For instance,  humpbacks, blue whales, and fin whales belong in this group.

  • Toothed Whales:

All species of the dolphin and porpoise belong to this group. They are also referred to as odontocetes because they have teeth. As a result, they can feed on large prey items. They are known to feed even on marine mammals.

For example, orcas (killer whales), pilot whales, and common bottlenose dolphins belong in this group.

The fact that a number of dolphins have the word “whale” attached to their common names causes a lot of confusion.

Closeup Of A Beluga Whale

The Beluga Whale Is A Relatively Much Smaller Whale Species (Photo: premier.gov.ru cc by 4.0)

Dolphin and Porpoise vs. Whales

As hinted earlier, the dolphin and porpoise are more related to each other than the whale. The feature that differentiate the dolphin and porpoise from the whale are highlighted below:

1) Dolphins and porpoises have teeth, while whales do not.

2) Dolphin and porpoise feed on larger preys, but whale feeds on smaller prey.

3) The whale is typically larger than the porpoise or dolphin. The rule does not hold, however, with the sperm whale, which is a small baleen whale.

4) The whale is slower than both porpoise and dolphins, except for the Fin Whale, which is a fast baleen whale. The fin whale is also referred to as the Greyhound of the Sea” due to its speed.

5) Dolphin and porpoise, along with all other toothed whales, have one blowhole each. Whale, along with all other baleen whales, has two blowholes.

6) Dolphins and porpoises are deemed to be more “intelligent” than whales.

7) The dolphin is a very social animal and is less afraid of the human compared to whales.

8) Dolphins usually move about in groups, but whales, especially the very large ones are solitary.

9) Dolphins have smaller lungs compared to whales. Therefore, the latter can take in more oxygen in each breath than the former. This allows whales to take deeper dives than dolphins.

Dolphins are very social creatures but whales tend to be more solitary.

Differences Between Dolphins And Porpoises

Killer whale or orca: whales, porpoises, and dolphins

The Killer Whale, Or Orca, Is Actually A Dolphin

Dolphin and porpoise have a lot of similarities; they also have certain differences, which will be highlighted below:

1) The porpoise has spade-shaped, flat teeth, while dolphins have cone-shaped teeth like the other toothed whales.

2) Porpoises are much smaller than dolphins. In fact, this is the major difference between the two.

3) Porpoises do not have a prominent beak commonly seen in dolphins. Be that as it may, not all dolphins have prominent beaks.

4) Porpoises sport a triangular dorsal fin, while dolphin can have either a curved or hooked dorsal fin. Bear in mind, however, that not all dolphins have a dorsal fin.

5) Also, porpoises look somewhat chunky, while dolphins generally have lean streamlined bodies.

6) The porpoise is quieter than the dolphin; the latter is therefore tagged as a “talkative.” Porpoises do not produce whistles via their blowhole, while dolphins do. This is due to the structural differences in their blowholes. The only time a porpoise makes any significant noise is when it emerges on the water surface and puffs air out.

7) While dolphin and porpoise are more social than the whale, the dolphin is less afraid of the human than the porpoise.

Research is still on-going about differentiating more features of whales, porpoises, and dolphins. Though from all indications, not many striking differences will emerge aside from the ones already highlighted above.




1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cetacean_species

2. http://uk.whales.org/faqs/what-are-differences-between-whales-dolphins-and-porpoises

3. http://www.diffen.com/difference/Dolphin_vs_Whale

Photo Credits:

1. https://commons.wikimedia.org/Neophocaena_phocaenoides-Japan-8a.jpg

2. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beluga_premier.gov.ru-3.jpeg

3. www.pixabay.com

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