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HOW TO IDENTIFY CETACEANS OF FRENCH POLYNESIA

Twenty species of cetartiodactyls (or cetaceans) are regularly found in the Polynesian marine environment. These include four mysticetes species (commonly called ‘baleen whales’) and 16 odontocete species or ‘toothed whales’ (three species of sperm whales, two species of beaked whales and 11 species of dolphins). The 10 most commonly observed species are displayed below with their main characteristics and habitats.

Scientific name . Megaptera novaeangliae

Length . 13 to 16 metres

Weight . 20 to 40 tons

Frequency and distribution . Common between July and November in all archipelagoes except in the Marquesas Islands.

Characteristics . Black color on the back and clear color on the belly, on the flanks and the inside of the fins. Very large pectoral fins and hunchback. Regularly gets its flukes above sea surface before diving. Straight blow looking like a bush.

HUMPBACK WHALE

Scientific name . Orcinus orca

Length . 4.6 to 9 metres

Weight . 3 to 10 tons

Frequency and distribution . Occasional. More frequent in the Marquesas Islands.

Characteristics . Stubby body, large dorsal fin sickle to triangular, conic head. Black and white. The largest dolphin. Polynesian pods usually contain 2 to 10 individuals.

KILLER WHALE

Scientific name . Grampus griseus

Length . 2.8 to 3.8 metres

Weight . 250 to 680 kilos

Frequency and distribution . Common offshore in all archipelagoes.

Characteristics . Rounded head, no beak, light grey. Dark grey body, bleaching when aging, covered with scars. Pods from 5 individuals to more than 50. Sometimes follow boats.

RISSO'S DOLPHIN

Scientific name . Tursiops truncatus

Length . 2.5 to 4 metres

Weight . 200 to 500 kilos

Frequency and distribution . Common in the North East of the Tuamotu and in the Marquesas Islands.

Characteristics . Dark grey back, greyish sides, clear underside. Stubby body and thick rostrum. Small pods sometimes mixed with other species of cetaceans. It comes close to boats and plays with them.

COMMON BOTTLENOSE DOLPHIN

Scientific name . Stenella attenuata

Length . 1.6 to 2.5 metres

Weight . 90 to 120 kilos

Frequency and distribution . Common in the Marquesas Islands.

Characteristics . Spotted grey robe, pointed fins, white tip of rostrum. Newborns entirely grey with white underside. Gregarious, fast acrobatic swimmer, comes close to boats.

PANTROPICAL SPOTTED DOLPHIN

Scientific name . Physeter macrocephalus

Length . 11 to 20 metres

Weight . 10 to 50 tons

Frequency and distribution . Common offshore in all archipelagoes.

Characteristics . Large rectangular head, hunchback, small pectoral fins, brown grey wrinkled skin, blow inclined forward at 45°. Gets its flukes above sea surface before diving. When at the surface it looks like a big log adrift.

SPERM WHALE

Scientific name . Globicephala macrorhynchus

Length . 5 to 7 metres

Weight . 1 to 3.5 tons

Frequency and distribution . Common in all archipelagoes.

Characteristics . Stubby body, bulbous forehead, bended fins. Dark brown robe, white tie. Curious it comes close to boats, shows its head and follows whales. Often followed by oceanic sharks.

SHORT-FINNED PILOT WHALE

Scientific name . Peponocephala electra

Length . 2.2 to 2.7 metres

Weight . 120 to 275 kilos

Frequency and distribution . Common in the Marquesas Islands.

Characteristics . Dark body with darker mantle on the back, white line on the underside, white lips. No beak, pointed fins. Very gregarious, it is found both offshore and close to the shore, likes to play with boats.

MELON-HEADED WHALE

Scientific name . Steno bredanensis

Length . 2.1 to 2.7 metres

Weight . 100 to 160 kilos

Frequency and distribution . Common in the Society archipelago.

Characteristics . Marble grey dorsal area with large clear spots on the sides, pink white underside. Flat forehead. Pods of 10 to 50 individuals, often swimming in parallel. Jumps and comes close to boats.

ROUGH-TOOTHED DOLPHIN

Scientific name . Stenella longirostris

Length . 1.5 to 2.2 metres

Weight . 60 kilos

Frequency and distribution . Common in all archipelagoes.

Characteristics . Thin elongated rostrum. Dark dorsal area, light grey on the sides, white or pale pink underside. Triangular dorsal fin. Schools of 15 to more than 100 individuals. Spinner dolphins are famous for their acrobatic and aerial behaviors.

SPINNER DOLPHIN

HUMPBACK WHALE

Megaptera novaeangliae