Species Profile

AMMCF species descriptions

You will find species description and interesting facts about some of Australia’s most well-known marine mammal species. Information presented is a synthesis of materials from numerous sources (listed at the end of the page) complied by Dr Kate Charlton-Robb.


Species Profile

Burrunan_AMMCF Barrunan DolphinTursiops australis

Only recently classified as a new dolphin species, the Burrunan dolphin, Tursiops australis, resembles bottlenose dolphins but also show numerous distinct differences. The Burrunan dolphin is approximately 2.5m in length and has a distinct tri-coloration pattern, from dark grey on the upper side of the body, a paler grey midline and cream underside. The cream underside can extend over the eye, whilst the grey mid-line forms a shoulder blaze (a brush-stroke pattern) below the falcate (curved) dorsal fin. The Burrunan has broad tail flukes, a prominent rounded head and a short stubby rostrum (nose). Burrunan dolphins are social animals are most commonly seen in pods of 2-30 animals. They are endemic to southern Australian waters and are most commonly seen in the two resident populations in coastal Victoria: Port Phillip Bay and the Gippsland Lakes. Outside of these two populations the Burrunan in also found in Tasmania and South Australia, however genetic research suggests the species is characterised by small, genetically distinct and localized populations. The Burrunan is also known to inhabit semi-enclosed embayment’s, estuarine systems and have been noted high up in freshwater rivers. It is also thought they inhabit inshore coastal waters.

Burru10_AMMCFspecies Common dolphin

Delphinus delphis

Smaller than the bottlenose dolphin, these dolphins have a tri-coloration pattern with a distinct cream/tan patch on their side. Their upper body is dark grey with a white underside, they also have a distinct dark stripe extending from the rostrum (nose) to the pectoral fin. They have a long slender rostrum (nose) and a deep crease between the head and beak.  Their dorsal fin is triangular with paler inner coloration. There is a lot of variation in total length of these dolphins ranging from 1.6-2.5m. They are often seen in large ‘super pods’ in offshore regions. The common dolphin is considered an oceanic species in tropical to cool temperate waters, although there are reports of a small resident population being established in Port Phillip Bay, Victoria.

Seal1_AMMCFspecies Humpback whale

Megaptera novaeangliae

The Humpback whale is probably the most well know of all the whales. Their annual migration from Antarctic waters to the warmer waters of both the east and west coast of Australia is well documented with many Australian and International research organizations studying these animals on migration. Their body is robust with a black/dark-grey upper body and white underside. Their heads are slender in profile, they have long slender pectoral fins (about 1/3 the body length) that have knobs/lumps on the front edge (known as tubercles). They have a small stubby dorsal fin set further back on the body. Interestingly the females are longer than males (male 14m; female 16m). The pattern on the underside of the fluke, the body and the shape of the dorsal fin can be used to distinguish individuals. They have two distinct blowholes and the blow from a Humpback whale is a single bushy blow up to 5m. They can often been seen tail/pec slapping or breaching (jumping out of the water). Humpback whales are widely distributed in all oceans from the poles to the tropics. In our region they migrate from feeding grounds in Antarctica to calving grounds in warmer Australian waters (i.e. Hervey Bay QLD).

Burru10_AMMCFspecies Blue Whale

Balaenoptera musculus

The Blue whale is the largest animal to have ever lived. Whilst the taxonomy remains unclear, there are tentatively four subspecies of Blue whale. It is thought we have two of the subspecies in southern Australian waters: Balaenoptera musculus intermedia: Southern Blue Whale (or True Blue Whale or Antarctic Blue Whale) and the smaller B. m. brevicauda: Pygmy Blue Whale. The differences between these two can be difficult to distinguish in the field. Melbourne Museum houses an articulated skeleton of a Pigmy Blue in its foyer. These long and slender whales have a grey-blue coloration on top of the body, a paler grey under body and can also have paler mottled pigmentation behind the head region. The Blue whales head is a broad flat U-shape, on top of the head extending to the blowholes is a single distinct raised ridge or splashguard. They have a tall and straight blow that can be up to 10-12m high. Their dorsal fin is very small and set far down the body. Blue whales are listed as ‘Endangered’ under the EPBC Act. Blue whale habitat is variable, mainly in cold waters and open oceans worldwide. In Australia they have been seen at depths ranging from 10m-300m. Food availability is thought to dictate the distribution. They have been observed feeding during November to May around the Bonney Upwelling (west coast Victoria) and adjacent upwelling areas of Victoria, the continental shelf and Bass Strait.

Southern Blue Whale: Male, 31 m; Female, 33.6 m; calf 7-8m

Pygmy Blue Whale: Male, 21 m; Female, 24.4 m.

Burru10_AMMCFspecies Southern Right Whale

Eubalaena australis

Most famously seen close to shore along Victoria’s west coast during the winter period, the Southern right whale have a large bulbous head and downward arched mouth line. They also have callosities which are large white rough and raised marking around the head region, these markings can help identify individual whales. The southern right whale has a robust black body with white markings on the underside, short and paddle-like pectoral fins (up to 1.7m long) and do not have a dorsal fin. Similarly to the humpback whales females are longer then males (male 16m; female 18m). The blow of a southern right whale is V-shape and can be 5m high. Little is known about the southern right whale habitat preference but the distribution is thought to be temperate and polar oceans, near coastlines. In Victoria they can be seen close to shore in water <5m during the winter calving season. A popular site to see the whales is Logan’s Beach, near Warrnambool, but they have also been noted in Port Phillip Bay.

References and related links

  • Charlton-Robb, K., Gershwin L., Thompson, R., Austin, J., Owen, K., and McKechnie, S.W. (2011) A New Dolphin Species, the Burrunan Dolphin Tursiops australis sp. nov., Endemic to Southern Australian Coastal Waters. PLoS ONE 6(9): e24047. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0024047
  • Department of Sustainability and Environment, Victorian Sate Government. Marine mammals of Victoria Identification guide. (Now known as Department of Environment and Primary Industries).
  • Foote, A.D., Morin, P.A., Pitman, R.L., Ávila-Arcos, M.C., Durban, J.W., van Helden, A., Sinding, A.S., Thomas, M. and Gilbert P. (2013) Mitogenomic insights into a recently described and rarely observed killer whale morphotype. Polar Biology. doi: 10.1007/s00300-013-1354-0
  • Fitzgerald, E. & Jefferies, R. (2011) Taxonomic Toolkit for marine life of Port Phillip Bay, Museum Victoria.
  • Jefferson, T.A.,  Webber, M.A. &  Pitman, R.L. (2008) Marine mammals of the world : a comprehensive guide to their identification. Academic Press, London.
    • Perrin, B. Wursig, and J. G. M. Thewissen, editors. (2009) Encyclopedia of marine mammals: Second Edition. Academic Press, San Diego, CA.
    • Kirwood, R. and Goldsworthy, S. (2013) Fur Seals and Sea Lions. CSIRO Publsihing, Collinwood, Australia.
    • Shirihai, H. and Jarrett, B. (2006) Whales, Dolphins and Seals. A field Guide to the Marine Mammals of the World. A&C Black Publishers Ltd, London, United Kingdom.