How many species of whales are there in the world? From the large Blue Whale to the small Gray Whale, there are a total of 90 distinct and recognized whale species in existence today. Although some people may think that all whales look alike, each species display unique characteristics that can be used to distinguish them.
In this blog post, we’ll explore why there are so many different types of whales and provide interesting information about each species. Additionally, we’ll also discuss their habits and habitats so that readers can have a better understanding of these fascinating creatures. So if you’re curious about what makes each type of whale special, stick around till the end!
Here’s the answer: How many species of whales are there in the world?
There are 90 distinct and recognized whale species in the world today; they are divided into two groups: baleen whales and toothed whales – each one with its unique characteristics, habits, and habitats. From the colossal Blue Whale to the small Gray Whale, this diverse group of marine mammals has adapted to live in different parts of the globe. With new discoveries being made almost every year, researchers are still trying to understand why there are so many kinds of whales.
The answer lies in their evolutionary history. Over the course of time, various whale species have adapted to their surroundings and evolved into different forms. This is why we see distinct variations between the size, shape, and behavior of these animals. Also, because they live in water which allows them to migrate long distances, whales have been able to interbreed with other species and produce new hybrid offspring.
Interestingly, different whale species are found in different parts of the world. While some prefer the cold waters of the Arctic, others make their home in warmer areas like the Gulf of Mexico. Whales also inhabit deep oceans and coastal lagoons, giving them access to various food sources. Some species are sole predators, while others feed on small fish and plankton.
How many species of baleen whales are there?
Baleen whales are large filter-feeding cetaceans that have wide, flat plates of baleen in their mouths. The largest species – such as the blue whale – can reach lengths of up to 100 feet and weigh more than 200 tons. They feed by taking in huge amounts of water and then exhaling it, trapping small fish and other prey in the baleen.
Baleen whales are also known for their lengthy migrations, sometimes traveling thousands of miles yearly to reach feeding grounds. Some species – like the bowhead whale – have been recorded swimming beneath the Arctic sea ice. 
While there are 14 species of baleen whales, some remain more visible than others. Here are the most frequently seen types:
1. Blue Whale
Scientific name: Balaenoptera musculus
Size: This species is the largest animal alive today, with some individuals reaching lengths of up to 100 feet.
Habitat: They inhabit all of the world’s oceans, with their preferred habitat being the cold waters of the Southern and Northern hemispheres. The five blue whale subspecies traverse around the four seas of our planet – North Atlantic Ocean, North Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, and South Pacific.
Diet: Their diet includes tiny organisms called krill, which they filter out of the water using their baleen. They also consume small fish and plankton.
Lifespan: Blue whales can live from 60 to 120 years.
2. Fin Whale
Scientific name: Balaenoptera physalus
Size & appearance: Fin whales are the second-largest whale species; they got their names from their prominent, hooked dorsal fins found near their tails. These animals can reach lengths of up to 85 feet and weigh up to 80 tons.
Habitat: They’re found in all major oceans except the parts of the Arctic that remain covered with ice during most of the year (including summer).
Diet: Fin whale feeds mainly on tiny krill or small pelagic fish.
Lifespan: They reach physical maturity at approximately 25 years old and have the potential to live up to 90 years.
3. Humpback Whale
Scientific name: Megaptera novaeangliae
Size & appearance: Humpback whales can reach lengths of up to 60 feet and weigh up to 36 tons. It is one of the most iconic marine mammals, known for its long flippers and beautiful singing voice.
Habitat: It can be found in all oceans except the Arctic, with its preferred habitat being coastal waters near islands or continental shelves.
Diet: They feed mainly on small schooling fish, such as herring, cod, and capelin. Their diet can also include crustaceans and krill. For more about Humpback whales’ diet, read our article What Do Humpback Whales Eat?
Lifespan: Humpbacks can live up to 50 years and reach sexual maturity at 7 to 10 years.
4. Bowhead Whale
Scientific name: Balaena mysticetus
Size & appearance: The bowhead is a large whale species; its body is dark in color and has a unique white chin that sets it apart from other cetaceans. Additionally, these creatures lack the dorsal fin typically seen in most aquatic mammals. Bowhead has an enormous head and grows up to 60 feet long, making it one of the world’s largest animals.
Habitat & diet: This species inhabits the Arctic and subarctic waters, feeding on tiny organisms such as copepods and amphipods. It’s known for its thick blubber, which allows it to survive in the cold temperatures of its habitat.
Lifespan: Bowhead whales are considered the longest-living mammals, living for over 200 years.
5. Right Whale
Scientific name: Eubalaena
Size: The right whale is one of the most endangered species of whales, with only a few thousand individuals remaining in the wild. It’s 13–17 m (43–56 ft) long and weighs up to 100 short tons (91 t; 89 long tons).
Appearance: The right whale boasts a robust body, arching rostrum, and V-shaped blowhole, all enveloped in dark gray or black skin. This majestic creature can be easily identified by the white patches on its head caused by parasitism from whale lice.
Diet: This species feeds on zooplankton and tiny crustaceans, which it filters out of the water using its baleen plates.
Habitat: Right whales usually swim in the North Atlantic Ocean’s western region, a wide band from Japan to Alaska across the Northern Pacific and all areas of the Southern Ocean.
Lifespan: Right whales can live up to 70 years.
6. Minke Whale
Scientific name: Balaenoptera acutorostrata
Size: The minke whale is the second smallest species of baleen whale; the two species of minke whale are the common (or northern) minke whale and the Antarctic (or southern) minke whale. It grows up to 35 feet long.
Habitat: It inhabits cold and temperate waters around the world, with its preferred habitat being coastal areas or near islands. During the colder months, these creatures typically migrate to warmer climates for breeding; conversely, they gravitate towards frigid waters near the poles during summertime in search of food.
Diet: This species feeds mainly on schooling fish and occasionally krill. It also consumes small crustaceans such as copepods and plankton.
Lifespan: Minke whales can live up to 50 years.
How many species of toothed whales are there?
Toothed whales are the second suborder of cetaceans. Unlike baleen whales, they have teeth and feed on various prey—including fish, squid, and even other marine mammals. There are about 65 species of toothed whales. These are the most common species:
1. Sperm whale
Scientific name: Physeter macrocephalus
Size: The sperm whale is the largest toothed whale; it can grow up to 18 m (60 ft) long and weigh up to 45 tons.
Appearance: It has a dark grey body with a white underbelly, a large forehead, and an underslung lower jaw. Its most distinctive feature is its long, column-like head.
Habitat: They are found in all deep oceans, from the equator to the edge of the pack ice in the Arctic and Antarctic.
Diet: This species feeds mainly on squid, fish, sharks, and skates.
Lifespan: Sperm whales can live up to 70 years.
2. Orca (Killer whale)
Scientific name: Orcinus orca
Size: Orcas are the largest species of whales and can measure up to 8 m (26 ft) long and weigh up to 6 tonnes.
Appearance: These animals have a black back, white belly, and distinctive white patches around their eyes. Males typically possess a large dorsal fin, while females have a much smaller one.
Habitat: They inhabit cold and temperate waters in the world’s oceans, particularly favoring areas with plentiful prey such as fish and seals.
Diet: Orcas are carnivorous predators that feed on various marine mammals, such as seals, other whales, fish, squid, and seabirds. Orcas are also the only predators of great white sharks.
Lifespan: Orcas can live up to 50 years.
Scientific name: Delphinapterus leucas
Size: Belugas are typically 4–5 m (13–16 ft) long and weigh up to 1.5 tonnes.
Appearance: These whales have a white or yellowish-white coloration, with some individuals having areas of gray on their backs and sides.
Habitat: They inhabit cold waters in the Arctic and subarctic regions, preferring shallow coastal areas and estuaries.
Diet: Beluga whales have a varied diet consisting of octopus, squid, crabs, shrimp, clams, snails, and sandworms. They also eat various fish, including salmon, eulachon, cod, herring, smelt, and flatfish. For more about Beluga whales’ diet, read our article What Do Beluga Whales Eat?
Lifespan: Belugas can live up to 50 years.
Scientific name: Monodon monoceros
Size: Narwhals can measure up to 7 m (23 ft) long and weigh up to 1.5 tonnes.
Appearance: These whales have a black and white mottled color pattern, with a long tusk protruding from their upper jaw.
Habitat: Narwhals inhabit the Canadian Arctic and Greenlandic and Russian waters.
Diet: During winter, narwhals feed on benthic prey in dense pack ice, such as flatfish. Then, when summer arrives, they switch their diet to include Arctic cod and Greenland halibut.
Lifespan: Narwhals can live up to 50 years.
5. Pilot whale
Scientific name: Globicephala melas
Size: Both long-finned and short-finned pilot whales measure approximately 4 to 6 m (or 13–20 feet) in length, and males of both species are larger than their female counterparts.
Appearance: These whales have a black or dark gray coloration, with light areas on the belly and around the eyes.
Habitat: Long-finned pilot whales consistently inhabit deep, cold waters, although some stay offshore. Nevertheless, they may venture close to shore to forage.
Short-finned pilot whales are generally found in balmy tropical and subtropical waters near the outer edges of continental shelves.
Diet: Pilot whales feed mainly on squid, fish, and octopuses.
Lifespan: The average life span of female long-finned pilot whales is about 50 years, while female short-finned pilot whales are about 63 years. The average life span for males of both species is 46 years.
6. Beaked whale
Scientific name: Ziphiidae
Size: Beaked whales range from 4–13 m (13–43 ft) long and weigh up to 15 tonnes.
Appearance: These whales vary in coloration, but most have a dark gray or black upper body and a lighter gray or white underside.
Habitat: Beaked whales inhabit the world’s oceans, intense offshore waters at least 300 m deep.
Diet: Beaked whales feed mainly on deep-water squid, benthic and benthopelagic fish, and crustaceans.
Lifespan: Beaked whales can live up to 84 years.
In conclusion, there are a total of 90 distinct and recognized whale species in existence today. Each species has unique characteristics, such as size, appearance, habitat, and diet. Additionally, the life span of each species varies, with some species living up to 84 years. Knowing more about the different species of whales can help us better understand and protect these majestic marine mammals.
See our article Do whales drink water? To explore more about whales.