American Oceans

What Are The Different Types of Dolphins

When you think of dolphins, you probably have an image in your head of a smiling, long-nosed gray bottlenose that catches a red ball on its beak in aquariums.

However, there are actually many dolphin species swimming all over the globe.

dolphin portrait shot underwater view

In this article, we will explore different dolphin species and discuss their distinguishing characteristics.

Keep reading to learn more about the different dolphin species you may come across in the ocean. 


Common Bottlenose Dolphin

The Common Bottlenose Dolphin is the most well-known dolphin species that perform in many aquarium shows around the globe.

Common Bottlenose Dolphin swimming underwater

They are found all over the world in tropical oceans and other warm waters. They are deceptively large, 10-14 feet tall and weighing over 1,000 pounds, with an average lifespan of 40-50 years.

Bottlenoses are intelligent and charismatic and considered one of the smartest animals in the world.

They also have a special skill called echolocation, making them able to communicate with their pod mates and track their prey from miles away.


Dusky Dolphin

Dusky Dolphins are known as the acrobats of the sea because of their impressive jumps and dives.

Dusky Dolphin Lagenorhynchus obscurus swimming under the ocean

They are found in coastal waters all over the Southern Hemisphere, with larger populations around South America, Africa, and New Zealand.

They are on the smaller side, growing to about 6 feet and weighing around 200 pounds.

Scientists have named Dusky Dolphins the most active dolphin species, but they are not born with their aeronautic tricks.

Living in large pods of over 200 members, they learn to leap and spin from their elders.


Hourglass Dolphin

The Hourglass Dolphin is a cold-water dolphin residing off the Antarctic coast. They are short and stocky, about 6 feet long, and weigh 200 pounds.

Hourglass dolphin Lagenorhynchus cruciger near Antarctica

They have a large, curved dorsal fin, and are named after their distinctive hourglass-shaped markings on their sides.

Hourglass dolphins are curious and agile, known for ‘bow riding’, or leaping along the waves that boats and whales make.

They are one of the least-studied dolphin species because of their location, and there have so far been no confirmed sightings of their calves.


Orca

Commonly known as the Killer Whale, the Orca is actually the largest dolphin species.

Orca playing in a pool of blue water

It is found in every ocean across the globe, from tropical waters to Antarctica.

Male orcas are usually 20-26 feet long, and they can weigh 3-4 tons. Even at birth, orcas are larger than most other adult dolphins.

Orcas have some of the most complex social bonds of any mammal, comparable to only elephants and higher primates.

The most social group of orcas live in the Northern Pacific, in matriarchal pods where families live together for generations.


Atlantic Spotted Dolphin

The Atlantic Spotted Dolphin is a species found in tropical parts of the Atlantic Ocean, most commonly in the Bahamas.

Atlantic Spotted Dolphin in the ocean

While calves are monochrome gray, adults develop characteristic small black spots that cover their bodies.

They are medium-sized dolphins, around 7.5 feet and weighing roughly 300 pounds.

Unlike many other dolphin species which surface multiple times a minute, the Atlantic Spotted Dolphin can dive 200 feet into the ocean and hold its breath for up to 10 minutes at a time.


Irrawaddy Dolphin

The Irrawaddy Dolphin is a euryhaline species, which means it can live in both salt and fresh water, although it is mostly found in the Bay of Bengal and Southeast Asia.

Irrawaddy Dolphin in bay water

It closely resembles the Australian snubfin dolphin, and until 2005, was thought of as the same species.

Irrawaddy Dolphins have almost flat noses resembling that of a beluga whale, and short, rounded dorsal fins.

They are shy and introverted, traveling in pods of only 2-3, and diving deep when boats approach.

Unfortunately, they still end up caught in fishing nets because they live close to shore, and are considered endangered.


Hector’s Dolphin

Hector’s Dolphins are the smallest and rarest marine dolphins worldwide, sometimes as short as 4 feet and weighing less than 100 pounds.

Hector's Dolphin Cephalorhynchus hectori underwater

They are a common gray color but have a distinctive rounded dorsal fin shaped like a Mickey Mouse ear.

They are found only in the shallow, warm waters off of New Zealand’s western coast. 

Although they are both rare and endangered, their population is now estimated to be almost 15,000, double what it was twenty years ago.

There is a subspecies of Hector’s, called the Maui’s Dolphin, which has a population of only 68.


Commerson’s Dolphin

Commerson’s Dolphin is a small, oceanic dolphin found off of the southern cone of South America.

Commerson's dolphins swimming under at water park

They are sometimes called the skunk or panda dolphin because of their distinctive black head, dorsal fin, tail, and white body. They are under 5 feet in length and weigh only 50-75 pounds.

One of the most social dolphin species, they not only swim in large pods of their own but often spend time with other dolphin and porpoise species.

Although they usually stay in one area, in 2004 one little Commerson’s managed to swim over 4,000 miles to the coast of South Africa.


Long-finned Pilot Whale

The Long-finned Pilot Whale is the second-largest dolphin species after the Orca, reaching over 22 feet in length and weighing over 2,000 pounds.

Long-finned Pilot Whale closeup shot underwater

It has a short snout similar to that of Irrawaddy dolphins, and the longest pectoral fins of any dolphin. They are cold-water oceanic dolphins, mostly found near the poles.

Long-finned Pilot Whales are one of the most social dolphins, especially when it comes to socializing with others.

They have been known to accept many species into their pod at once, including bottlenoses, Atlantic white-sided dolphins, and minke whales. 


Peale’s Dolphin

Peale’s Dolphins are a small dolphin species found around the southern cone of South America.

Peale’s Dolphin swimming in the ocean

They usually grow to about 7 feet in length and weigh a little over 200 pounds when full-grown.

They are a mix of dark gray and black, that fade into a white underbelly, and have a bow-shaped dorsal fin.

Historically, Peale’s Dolphins have been the unfortunate casualties of the fishing industry, especially vulnerable because they stay in small pods close to the shore.

In the 1970s and 80s, Chilean fishermen used these dolphins as bait to catch fish. Luckily, this practice is decreasing with international pressure, and the population is growing.


Spinner Dolphin

The Spinner Dolphin is a small dolphin species found in tropical waters around the globe.

Spinner Dolphin close shot under the water

They are named because of their impressive acrobatic moves, where they jump high above the waves and spin around vertically.

Spinner Dolphins are long and thin, reaching about 6 feet, but weighing under 100 pounds.

The Spinner Dolphin is most recognizable for its aerial moves, which resemble a figure skater twirling in the air.

No one knows why they spin so much, but scientists theorize that it is both a mating call and a way to have fun since when one dolphin spins, others will join in.


False Killer Whale

The False Killer Whale is aptly named for its resemblance to Orcas, although it is easily distinguished because of its purely dark gray coloring.

False Killer Whale Pseudorca crassidens

They have longer heads than orcas, but the same characteristic mouth full of 44 large, sharp teeth. They are found all over the world but mostly stick to warmer water.

False Killer Whales are very social with some of the largest pods of any dolphin species.

They have also been known to band together to protect smaller dolphin species like the bottlenose from predators.

Unfortunately, their social nature also means they are often part of mass beaches, sometimes reaching over 800 members.


Striped Dolphin

The Striped Dolphin is one of the most widespread and commonly studied dolphin species, found in every ocean.

Striped Dolphin jumping outside the sea

They are named because of the characteristic black stripe that circles their eyes and runs around their entire body.

They are distinctive for their stripes and stomachs, which are sometimes blue or pink.

Striped Dolphins are incredibly fast swimmers, and they are known to speed around the surface of the ocean with their entire pod.

Unfortunately, this coupled with their curiosity means that they are often hunted for their meat in Japan because they swim so close to boats.


Clymene Dolphin

Clymene Dolphins are small oceanic dolphins found only in the Atlantic ocean.

Clymene Dolphin swimming under the ocean

It is remarkable because it is the only hybrid speciation of dolphin, a cross between a spinner dolphin and a striped dolphin.

They are often mistaken for spinner dolphins because of their long beaks but are distinguished by their markings stemming from their striped ancestry.

Clymene Dolphins prefer deeper water, which is why they stay in the Atlantic and are found as far north as New Jersey, and as far south as Morocco.

Because of their relation to the spinner dolphin, they are also known for their acrobatics. 


Southern Right Whale Dolphin

Southern Right Whale Dolphins are an extremely unique-looking dolphin species found in the coldest waters of the Southern Hemisphere.

Southern Right Whale shot above the water

Because of their location, they are one of the least-known dolphin species but are easily recognizable because of their lack of dorsal fin and two-tone, black and white, horizontal coloration.

Although not much is known about their habits, scientists believe these dolphins perform unusual feeding behaviors.

Southern Right Whale Dolphins are thought to be foragers, diving over 600 feet down in the ocean to find their meals.


Rough-Toothed Dolphin

Rough-Toothed Dolphins are a distinctive, almost primitive-looking dolphin species favoring warm and tropical waters across the equator.

Rough-Toothed Dolphin under the water

They are named for their strange teeth that appear wrinkled but are actually ridged and scratched on the surface.

This species almost looks reptilian because of its teeth and narrow, sharp beak. They are on the larger side, sometimes reaching 9 feet long and weighing up to 350 pounds.

Rough-Toothed dolphins are slower and not as agile as most other dolphins, but they are thought to be one of the most intelligent.

They live in tight-knit, small pods, and are extremely effective communicators.


Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin

The Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin, sometimes referred to as the Chinese White Dolphin, is a rare dolphin species that lives only in coastal waters around China and Taiwan.

Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin wearing eyewear above water

There are many subspecies of this dolphin, and each looks different depending on where it is located.

While they are all born a light gray color, the ones near China are white, while those near Taiwan are pink. 

The Taiwanese subspecies is one of the most endangered dolphin species in the world, with only 50 or so remaining.

The strait between Taiwan and Hong Kong is the busiest worldwide, and the industry there is detrimental.


Long Beaked Common Dolphin

Although the bottlenose dolphin is considered the most ubiquitous because of its appearance in shows, the Common Dolphin is actually the most populous, with over 6 million worldwide.

Long Beaked Common Dolphin comes up from water

They are found in oceans globally, preferring tropical or temperate climates.

The Common Dolphin is relatively long and slender and often has a distinctively long beak that can make up 10% of its total body size.

The Long Beaked and Short Beaked Common Dolphins were considered two distinct species for many years.

However, recent research shows they are too similar for this classification and are now considered part of the same species.


Electra Dolphin

The Electra Dolphin, often known as the Melon-Headed Whale, is a subtropical oceanic dolphin rarely encountered at sea, preferring to swim far offshore beyond the continental shelf.

Electra Dolphin Melon-Headed Whale underwater

They are named for their canonical heads, which accompany medium-sized, torpedo-shaped bodies weighing up to 500 pounds.

While they are usually shy with humans and boats, Electra Dolphins are very social with each other and live in matriarchal pods numbered in the thousands.

Female Electras live decades longer than males and oversee multiple generations of the pod.

Final Thoughts

We hope you have enjoyed learning about the different kinds of dolphin species that share our waters.

From recognizable bottlenoses to rare Taiwanese pink humpbacks, dolphins are as varied as humans.

They are some of the most intelligent and community-oriented animals on the planet, and each species is distinctive in its own way.

Next time you are on a boat or beach and looking out at the ocean, see if you can catch any of these creatures leaping, spinning, or playing in the distance.

1 comment

  • Thank you for the “inventory” of dolphin species. It just adds to the awe I feel about the marine environment & the living things there.