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I Dream Africa

I Dream Africa

Whales & Dolphins



A dolphin is really a toothed whale. As a whale is a mammal, therefore so are dolphins. Along with whales and porpoises, they are known as cetaceans which are fish-shaped sea mammals. There are 79 species of cetaceans around the world and 38 types have been recorded in the waters of southern Africa.

Dolphins belong to the suborder called Odontoceti. This is why they are toothed whales using the one set of teeth for life - all the same shape. They feed mainly on fish or squid and are also capable of echolocation (they emit sound waves which bounce off other objects). If the dolphin detects an echo, it will know there is another object in the way.

They are very sociable animals and can be found in large schools. This behaviour is twofold; it allows them to find prey more easily, whilst at the same time providing protection for each other from predators such as sharks. They are much loved in human culture because of their friendly appearance and seemingly playful attitude, popularized by the 1963 movie - Flipper. The subsequent 1964 television series portrayed a (Bottlenose) dolphin as the sea version of Lassie, who understood human commands and like the Canadian Mountie, 'always got his man'. In Douglas Adams 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy', dolphins are the second most intelligent species on earth - after mice!

Dolphins have a keen sense of eyesight, both in and out of the water, and it has been proved that they can hear frequencies 10 times or more above the upper limit of adult humans. Hearing is also used for echolocation and it is widely believed that dolphin teeth function as an antenna to receive incoming sound and to pinpoint the exact location of an object.

Dolphins adopt a hunting tactic by herding a shoal of fish whilst a few of them at a time take it in turns to feed, whilst the others keep the shoal together. This process continues until they have all eaten. As some species of smaller fish head closer to the shoreline in search of warmer water, then dolphins will follow in to feed. Other species will only hunt out in deeper waters though.

If you are keen on seeing dolphins while in Namibia it is a good idea to join one of the dolphin cruises from Walvis Bay.

Dolphins commonly seen in Namibian waters include:

  • Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)
  • Common dolphin (Delphinus delphis)
  • Dusky dolphin (Lagenorhynchus obscurus)
  • False killer whale (Pseudorca crassidens)
  • Heaviside's Dolphin (Cephalorhynchus heavisidii)
  • Killer Whale (Orcinus orca)
  • Long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melaena)
  • Pygmy killer whale (Feresa attenuata)
  • Risso's dolphin (Grampus griseus)
  • Rough-toothed dolphin (Steno bredanensis)
  • Southern right whale dolphin (Lissodelphis peronii)


A whale is a mammal. A warm-bloodied animal with a backbone that breathes air and suckles their young. They need air to breathe, so they must be able to hold their breath for a long time underwater. Some of the larger species can hold their breath for over an hour!

Whales use sound to help them find their way, mainly because it is so dark underwater. They emit sound waves which bounce off other objects and if it detects an echo, it will know that there is another body in the way. This is called echolocation.

Unlike other mammals, whales do not have fur to keep them warm. They have a thick layer of fat under their skin called blubber. Flippers help them steer through the water and their enormous and powerful tails propel them along. The bones in the flippers are the same as the bones in a human hand, a confirmation that their ancestors once lived on land.

At the top of their heads are blowholes, or nostrils. When whales exhale, air is blown out of their lungs, causing a fountain to spurt out of the blowhole. This is not water, but in fact a cloud of steam, similar to a human breathing out on a cold morning!

Whales (and dolphins) are known as cetaceans, which are fish-shaped sea mammals. There are believed to be around 79 species of cetaceans around the world, of which some 38 have been observed in the waters of southern Africa. The coastal town on Walvis Bay in Namibia translates to Bay of Whales, paying tribute to the numbers of whales that were once found of the coastline. Whales are divided into 2 suborders:

  • Odontoceti: These are toothed whales, which includes dolphins and porpoises. They are much more common than baleen whales, accounting for some 69 of the species. Unlike most other mammals, toothed whales only have the one set of teeth for life and they are all the same shape. All toothed whales feed on fish or squid and are all capable of echolocation.
  • Mysticeti: These are known as baleen whales, such as the blue whale, but do not have teeth as with the suborder Odontoceti. Their teeth are in fact baleen, which is whalebone, a fingernail-type tissue that hangs in fronds (leaf-like) from the top jaw. The outer edge is smooth, unlike the frayed inner edge. This acts as a mesh to filter out smaller items. As baleen whales take in water to the mouth, it sieves out the krill through the baleen by pushing the water out of the closed mouth using the tongue. They usually feed in the upper layers of the ocean, which is where their type of food lives. Unlike toothed whales, baleen whales have 2 blowholes on top of the head to breath. As they feed nearer the surface for their food, they do not seem to use echolocation.

You can learn more about different species of whale by visiting the following:

  • Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus)
  • Bryde's Whale (Balaenoptera edeni)
  • Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus)
  • Gray's beaked whale (Mesoplodon grayi)
  • Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)
  • Layard's beaked whale (Mesoplodon layardii)
  • Minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata)
  • Pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps)
  • Sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis)
  • Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis)
  • Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus)
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