The whales in the Strait of Gibraltar
Learn more about the different species
For us the whales and dolphins are a great experience every day and we like to visit them. But we must not forget that there are many dangers for the animals. On the trips we inform our visitors about this, because the biggest threat to the whales are we humans.
Click on the individual species and learn more about the animals.
You can easily recognize Common Dolphins by their patterns: Imagine a lying 8, yellow in front and grey in the back, the cape under the dorsal fin forming a V.
Often Common Dolphins travel in large groups, but they usually keep their distance from our boats. It's the smallest species of dolphin in the Strait.With a length between 1.70 m and 2.30 m, these animals are on average about as long as a door is high.Small but powerful! With a top speed of 65 km/h they belong to the fastest dolphins. They can hold their breath for up to 8 minutes and dive to a depth of about 200 m.
The name Common Dolphin originates from the fact that they used to be widespread. But today this species is highly endangered in the Mediterranean. Why? Mothers and young animals like to stay in coastal areas because there they are safe from sharks. But we humans are also very active near the coast: sewage, shipping and fishing destroy the habitat of the animals and make their food scarce.
The name Striped Dolphin (or Blue-white Dolphin) already reveals what we have to look for in this species: the bluish stripe on the side.Since they often travel together with Common Dolphins, it is important to know the difference. Because they differ only slightly in size. Striped Dolphins, with 1.80 m to 2.50 m, are only slightly bigger than the Common Dolphins.
Striped Dolphins can dive up to 10 minutes and 200 m deep. They are also very fast swimmers with a maximum speed of 65 km/h. Moreover, they are very active: we often observe them bow riding in front of container ships, hunting or jumping. However, they usually keep a certain distance to whale-watching boats.
From the end of July on, Striped Dolphins are seen in particularly large schools - this can be several hundred animals. Young dolphins are also always present. However, as they are already at birth almost half the size of the adult animals, the babies are not easy to spot.
Bottlenose Dolphins can be found in all oceans of the world and depending on their habitat they differ in size and colouring. In the Strait of Gibraltar they reach a length of about 3 metres, have a dark cape, light grey sides and a light belly. With a maximum speed of 35 km/h they are not among the fastest swimmers, but they reach diving depths of 300 m and can stay there for up to 20 minutes without catching their breath.
Bottlenose Dolphins often endure a sad life in dolphinariums. Still today many animals are caught every year. Even if they always seem to smile - it is a hard fate for the animals. Only very few of them survive the stress of being separated from their families, transported and kept in far too narrow chlorine pools. Up to now these dolphins cannot be successfully bred in dolphinariums, in some countries this is even prohibited again.
On our trips in the Strait we often accompany these powerful swimmers for a while. You can see very well how much space these animals actually need and that they do not belong in a dolphinarium.
Pilot Whales are easily recognized by their round head - their scientific name Globicephala melas means black bulbous head. The name Pilot Whale refers to the fact that the school is led by a lead animal (the pilot), followed blindly by the rest of the group. Unfortunately, this is why mass strandings occur again and again.
Pilot Whales can hold their breath for 20 minutes and dive over 800 m deep. Although they belong to the dolphin family, they are already quite large at 4-7 m in length. Although they can reach a top speed of 35 km/h, they usually swim at a leisurely pace ... unless the Orcas are in the Strait. In the first weeks the Pilot Whales migrate to the Mediterranean Sea, but then they join together to form larger groups and return. Sometimes we could even watch them chase the much bigger Orcas out of the Strait.
Some Pilot Whales know firmm's boats so well that they approach confidently. They proudly present their offspring to us and watch us curiously and with interest.
In the Strait of Gibraltar we often see Pilot Whales with injuries. The greatest danger for these animals is sport fishing. Hobby fishermen often drive carelessly at high speed through a group and injure the animals with their extended fishing lines. Sometimes the entire fin is cut off.
Orcas are the largest dolphins, ranging from 5.5 m to 9.80 m in length. The families are usually led by an older female. The males can be easily recognized by their high fin. Killer Whale is another name for this species. It originates from the fact that Orcas hunt other marine mammals in some parts of the world.
The Orcas in the Strait of Gibraltar have specialized in tuna. Orcas can dive up to 15 minutes and 250 m deep, but with a maximum speed of 55 km/h they cannot compete with the tunas, which reach up to 80 km/h. That's why the Orcas of the Strait have developed a clever tactic: they lurk among the tuna fishers and simply snatch the desired prey, worth several thousand euros, from the fishing hook. The only thing left behind is the fish head. The fishermen naturally try to keep these animals away from their boats. But for the Orca calves this easy prey means a higher chance of survival.
The tuna stocks in this area are declining steadily. Tuna is a popular food fish and unfortunately already heavily overfished. In addition, the tuna here is already caught on its way to the spawning grounds. This is why the animals cannot provide for offspring, so there are fewer and fewer tunas and therefore Orca sightings are becoming increasingly rare.
With a length between 11 m and 18 m, the Sperm Whale is the largest toothed whale. In the Strait, the Sperm Whales drift on the surface between two dives and fill their blood with oxygen. Because the blowhole of the Sperm Whales is in the front left, the animals have a blow that is ejected diagonally forward to the left. We can see them from far away.
How long can you actually hold your breath? A Sperm Whale can hold its breath for 80 minutes! It can dive down to 3,000 m and reaches top speeds of 30 km/h.
Sperm Whales have been heavily hunted in the past. The Sperm Whale's spermaceti, a waxy liquid in the whale's head, was much sought after. It was used to make candles, lamp oil, lubricant and rust protection. Between 1920 and 1960 there were also whaling stations in the Strait of Gibraltar. The number of Sperm Whales in the Mediterranean has still not recovered from this.Today, collisions with ships and plastic pollution are the main reasons why there are fewer and fewer Sperm Whales. At the end of February 2018, a starving Sperm Whale stranded in the Spanish Mediterranean Sea with more than 29 kg of plastic bags, ropes and fishing nets in his stomach.Toothed whales actually catch their prey in a targeted manner. Therefore we fear that they will not find enough food and hunger will drive them to eat everything.
The Fin Whale is with 18-22 m length the second largest animal of the world. It is only surpassed by the Blue Whale, which can grow up to 33 m long.
It is very rare that we see a Fin Whale during whale watching. It is estimated that about 90 animals swim through the Strait every year. But they are fast, can dive 450 m deep and stay under water for about 15 minutes. But when they surface, we can easily recognize them by their blow. Baleen whales have a double blowhole, so the blow is ejected upwards in two clouds.
Most of the Fin Whales that pass through here spend the summer in the Atlantic Ocean and the winter in the Mediterranean. But there are also some animals that swim towards the Mediterranean in summer. We assume that they belong to a group living here that was almost wiped out by whaling.
With a maximum speed of 40 km/h this rather fast swimmer did not play a role at the beginning of whaling. It was only with the use of motor ships that Fin Whales were hunted. Then, however, violently!
With our few sightings we cannot say whether their numbers are recovering despite pollution and overfishing. We can only hope.
How fast are dolphins compared to humans?
Imagine if you could swim as fast as a world champion. Could you keep up with a dolphin? What do you think would happen if a swimming world champion competed against a Common Dolphin?
- Would the world champion be almost as fast as the dolphin?
- Or would the world champion only be about half as fast as the dolphin?
- Or would the dolphin still completely outperform the world champion?
In the following video you will find the answer.
Duel: swimming world champion against Common Dolphin
You want to learn more about the marine mammals in the Strait of Gibraltar? In the general section Whales and dolphins you will find detailed descriptions with photo galleries, videos, links to blog entries and our animals available for adoption.