Southern California is home to over 200 different mammals. Within driving distance, we can reach the desert, the mountains and even forests, getting us closer to the local wildlife. We’re also fortunate to be near the coast, which exposes us to a whole other set of mammals; marine mammals. Marine mammals are similar to other mammals, like having warm blood, giving live birth, secretion of milk by females to their young. The only difference is that marine mammals have adapted to living all or part of their life in water.
In the United States, all of our marine mammals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and unfortunately, many of them are on the endangered species list.
The largest mammal in the world happens to be a marine mammal; a whale. If you’ve ever gone whale watching, hopefully you caught a glimpse of these enormous creatures. In California, we have the opportunity to see 5 types of whales: Humpback Whales, Orca Whales, Gray Whales, Blue Whales, and Fin Whales. The latter 3 are on the endangered species list.
Whales are known for migrating long distances. Gray whales migrate an incredible 12,000 miles round trip every year. They travel between their southern breeding grounds off Baja California, Mexico and their northern feeding grounds off Alaska. Whales feed in colder waters and stock up on food for their journey to warmer waters where they mate and give birth. They breed in warmer waters because the calves don’t have thick layers of blubber yet to protect them from colder waters.
For whales, a little discrepancy starts to grow when it comes to teeth, so let’s back up for a second. Whales are a part of the marine order Cetacea, which includes dolphins and porpoises. A lot of whales don’t have teeth, called baleen whales. They have bristle-like, brooms, in place of teeth that act as filters, catching smaller fish and sea creatures. Whales that have teeth fall into a suborder called, Odontoceti, which means toothed whale. Orca whales and dolphins are a part of this suborder and belong to the delphinidae family, making Orca whales, dolphins. A grey area builds because “Orca whales” are actually dolphins, and dolphins are apart of the suborder for “toothed whales,” so some scientists consider dolphins to be a type of whale, while other scientists do not.
Speaking of dolphins, in southern California you might see 2 types of dolphins – common dolphins and bottlenose dolphins. These creatures are very intelligent, and have many strategies of getting food. One way is they follow behind big whales or boats and eat the fish that get tossed aside. Another way is hunting for prey in groups. They surround schools of fish and pack them in the center. They each take turns eating while the other dolphins prevent the fish from escaping. Another way is cornering the fish against coral, called “corraling,” and repeating the process described above.
Some marine mammals spend time on land. These are marine mammals from the pinniped order meaning “fin-footed, which is comprised of walruses, seals and sea lions. These semi-aquatic animals spend most of their lives in the water but go ashore to mate, give birth, and escape predators. Seals are divided into two families – otariidae and phocidae. Otariidae are the “eared seals” and sea lions, while phocidae are the “earless” or true seals. Most animals shed hair and skin throughout the year, but pinnipeds shed it all at once called molting. This process of shedding skin and hair also takes place on shore.
The slight differences between marine mammals is fascinating, where each adaptation leads to a different approach to survival. If you want to get a close look at some of these animals, try going on a whale watch tour, or visit our local Channel Islands.