Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: East Coast

Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: East Coast

by Steve N. G. Howell, Brian L. Sullivan


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691166216
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 11/24/2015
Series: Princeton Field Guides , #102
Pages: 64
Sales rank: 820,628
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Steve N.G. Howell is an international bird tour leader with WINGS and a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences. His other books include Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America and The Amazing World of Flyingfish (both Princeton). Brian L. Sullivan is eBird program codirector and photographic editor for Birds of North America Online at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and a coauthor of The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors (Princeton). Howell and Sullivan are the coauthors of Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: West Coast (Princeton).

Read an Excerpt

Offshore Sea Life ID Guide East Coast

By STEVE N. G. HOWELL, Brian L. Sullivan


Copyright © 2016 Steve N. G. Howell, Brian L. Sullivan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-16621-6


Marine Mammals

Unlike seabirds, marine mammals spend most of their time underwater, coming to the surface to breathe, and rarely do you see the whole animal. Views can be brief, and we provide the clues needed to identify species based on what you are likely to see — a fin, a blow, a tail going down.

As with 'seabirds,' some 'marine mammals' live along the coast, such as Harbor Seals and Gray Seals (see p. 5). We do not treat these species because they're not really offshore creatures; they can be seen more easily from land. Other marine mammals can be seen from shore on occasion, although to see them up close you'll still want to go out on a boat.

Things to look for with whales and dolphins are group size, general behavior, dorsal fin size and shape, any patterns or markings, and, for the larger whales, shape and size of the blow and how soon the dorsal fin appears relative to when you see the blow.

Whales: Very large swimming creatures 12

Beaked Whales and Pilot Whales: Medium-sized, often in groups 16 Dolphins: Smaller and faster swimming creatures, often in groups 18

Rarer Whales and Dolphins 22

Humpback Whale (HUWH)

The staple of many whale-watching businesses. Fairly common off the Northeast May–Sep, migrating s. to breed in the Caribbean; found off the Southeast mainly in winter. Well-known for active displays at the surface, including tail- and flipper-slapping, breaching, and lunge-feeding. Often seen simply blowing, swimming, and diving (arching its back high but not fluking). With luck or patience, can be seen fluking before deeper dives. Blow bushy, but fairly high. Dorsal fin distinctive but variable, lumpy and fairly low; very long narrow flippers mostly white. Underside of tail varies from white to black; many individuals can be identified by tail pattern.


Fin (Finback) Whale (FIWH)

Fairly common off the Northeast spring–fall, with a few present in winter; ranges s. to Mid-Atlantic states in late fall–spring; very rarely seen s. of Cape Hatteras. Singly or in small groups; may associate with HUWH in rich feeding areas. Very large and often fast-swimming, with sloping fin typically wider at base than tall, slightly falcate (individually quite variable; cf. much smaller MIWH). Fin appears after blow and after a stretch of back rolls by. Blow taller and stronger than bushier blow of HUWH. Rarely flukes or breaches.

Northern Minke Whale (MIWH)

The Minke (pronounced 'minky') is fairly common off New England spring–fall; very rarely seen to the s. Usually seen singly. Fast-swimming; resembles a mini FIWH but dorsal fin typically taller than wide, often more falcate. Blow low and bushy, usually not striking; fin appears simultaneously with blow, not after a length of back has appeared. Often rolls fairly high but rarely flukes, and after a few blows tends to disappear. Infrequent breaches can be clear out of the water.

North Atlantic Right Whale (RIWH)

Total population only 500 or so animals. Rare to locally uncommon off the Northeast in spring–fall, mainly Apr–early May and late Sep–Nov. Moves s. to winter and calve off the Southeast, Dec–Mar. Found singly or in loose groups, mainly in nearshore waters. Blow bushy and, seen at the right angle, distinctly V-shaped. Large, blackish, and broad-bodied, without dorsal fin; flippers short and broad. Large head has variable whitish patches (callosities). Broad flukes often raised high when sounding.

Sperm Whale, Pilot Whales, and Beaked Whales

Sperm Whale (SPWH)

Uncommon in deeper offshore waters, usually just beyond the shelf break or over submarine canyons; singly or in loose groups. Off New England found mainly late summer–fall, but present year-round to the s. Bushy blow angled forward, not vertical. Dorsal fin low and triangular; massive head apparent at closer range; rear of body wrinkled. Rests at the surface (looks like a giant turd), blowing steadily before sounding for a deep dive, when usually shows its broad, triangular flukes. Feeds on squid in deep water, and dives can last 1–2 hours.

Pilot Whales (PIWH)

2 very similar species of large dolphins, smaller than true whales: Long-finned Pilot Whale and Short-finned Pilot Whale ('long' and 'short' refer to the pectoral flippers, rarely visible). Uncommon to fairly common in deep waters beyond the shelf break. Species identity usually presumed by location and temperature: Long-finned occurs in cooler waters off the Northeast, ranging s. to Mid-Atlantic states in winter; Short-finned in warmer waters off the Southeast, ranging n. to Mid-Atlantic states in summer–fall. Usually in groups of 5–50, often logging at the surface; rarely breach or show flukes. Blackish overall with blunt head. Dorsal fin low and wide-based, lobed at tip on adult male.

Beaked Whales occur in deep waters beyond the shelf break. Found as singles or small groups; often indifferent to boats but at times curious. Surfacing animals show beak first and then a low triangular dorsal fin (similar in all species), but do not fluke; rarely breach. Many sightings are noted simply as 'beaked whale sp.' (= species unidentified).

Cuvier's Beaked Whale (Goosebeak) (CUBW)

Uncommon from Mid-Atlantic states s., very rare n. to Cape Cod. Larger than dolphins, clearly smaller than typical whales. Low bushy blow inconspicuous. Color variable; adults have whitish head, and adult male is marked with whitish scratches. Surfacing animals often show distinctive short 'goosebeak' and roll fairly high, especially before sounding.

Mesoplodon Beaked Whales (MBWH)

The genus Mesoplodon contains numerous similar-looking species worldwide, all slightly smaller than CUBW; 4 occur off the East Coast but are seen infrequently. Usually surface and blow a few times before deep feeding dives. Gervais's Beaked Whale (GEBW) is regular off Cape Hatteras in spring–summer; status and distribution of other species not well known. Photos showing male teeth needed for species identification.


Risso's Dolphin (Grampus) (RIDO)

Uncommon to fairly common from Mid-Atlantic states s., mainly in deeper waters offshore from the shelf break; small numbers range n. to Gulf of Maine in summer–fall. This large dolphin is usually seen in small to fairly large groups, occasionally mixing with other species. Rarely bow-rides and often indifferent to boats; can be quite active but does not usually porpoise clear of the water; sometimes breaches. Note prominent, tall dorsal fin, blunt head, fairly large size. Dorsal fin shape variable, can resemble some BODO (below). Coloration also variable, from milky whitish to dark gray, typically with extensive scratch marks.

Bottlenose Dolphin (BODO)

Stereotypical, playful dolphin of aquariums and feel-good movies. Fairly common in warmer waters from Mid-Atlantic states southward, ranging n. in summer–fall to New England, where usually rare. 2 distinct populations: smaller inshore form ranges into coastal sounds and estuaries; larger offshore form occurs mainly beyond the shelf break. Singly or in groups of 2–10; offshore form at times in groups of 30 or more. Fairly large with prominent, falcate dorsal fin (cf. RIDO, above), stubby beak (often with white-tipped lower jaw), rather plain coloration. At times acrobatic, leaping high and tail-slapping, and offshore form often bow-rides; at other times simply swims by and is indifferent to boats.

Atlantic Spotted Dolphin (ASDO)

Uncommon to fairly common in warmer waters from Mid-Atlantic coast southward, mainly over the shelf (between the typical ranges of inshore and offshore BODO). Usually in groups of 5–20, rarely to 100 or more. Often bow-rides and is attracted to fast-moving boats; acrobatic, leaps and jumps readily. Fairly small, stocky dolphin with stout beak usually tipped white. Coloration highly variable: young are rather plain and unspotted, suggesting BODO but smaller, usually in company of spotted adults, and beak longer.

Short-beaked Common Dolphin (SBCD)

Despite the name, not commonly seen on day trips off the East Coast. Can be found at Georges Bank (mainly spring–fall, when rare in Gulf of Maine), ranging s. (mainly winter–spring) to Mid-Atlantic states. Favors warmer waters from the shelf break to offshore. Inshore groups usually of 5–20 animals, but can occur in fast-moving, acrobatic groups of 100s. Handsome pattern easily seen as animals leap and bow-ride; note sharply demarcated creamy sides forward of dorsal fin.

Atlantic White-sided Dolphin (AWSD)

Fairly common off the Northeast; in winter–spring, very rare s. to Mid-Atlantic states. Usually in groups of 20–60, at times singles and small groups, rarely 100s; often in the same areas as feeding whales. Acrobatic, jumping and leaping, at times flipping head over tail. Sometimes bow-rides, but more often rather indifferent to boats. Note tall, falcate dorsal fin, short blunt beak; attractive 'white-sided' pattern best seen when animals leap.

Harbor Porpoise (HAPO)

Fairly common but often inconspicuous small porpoise of cooler inshore and island waters and tidal rips from New England northward; in winter ranges s. rarely to Mid-Atlantic Coast. Often seen from shore, rolling just beyond the breakers; rarely found far offshore. Usually singly or in groups of 3–10, at times larger groups in fall. Note low, triangular 'Hershey's Kiss' dorsal fin. Typically rolls once or twice before disappearing, but can swim quickly and create splashes. Rarely bow-rides.

Rarer Whales and Dolphins (not to scale)

Sei Whale (SEWH)

The Sei (pronounced 'say') is a rather large, fast-swimming whale easily confused with much more numerous and larger Fin Whale and smaller Minke Whale (below and p. 14). Found occasionally off New England in spring–fall, mainly in deep offshore waters; exceptionally seen to the s. Differs from Fin in taller, more erect dorsal fin that appears just after the blow and is usually visible longer; both sides of lower jaw dark. Dorsal fin taller, more erect than Minke; lacks white flipper bands. Rarely rolls and doesn't fluke; usually sinks with dorsal fin tip the last thing to disappear.

Killer Whale (Orca) (KIWH)

This spectacular species, the largest dolphin, is rare off the Northeast (mainly summer–fall), very rare to the s. (mainly fall–winter). Unmistakable if seen well, but at a distance cf. Risso's Dolphin (p. 18). Blow puffy, not striking at a distance. Often first detected when fin of adult male towers out of the water. Females and younger males have smaller fins. Singly (mainly males) or in small groups, often moving quickly and can be difficult to keep track of; occasionally breaches.

False Killer Whale (FAKW)

This large dark dolphin is scarce in warm, deeper offshore waters of the Southeast; some move n. in summer–fall to Mid-Atlantic states. Usually in groups of 5–30, sometimes with other dolphins; at times bow-rides and curious around boats. Faster and more streamlined than Pilot Whales (p. 16), with distinctive, tall and blunt-topped dorsal fin. Often surfaces with blunt head clear of the water. Groups can be dispersed and very active, difficult to keep track of as they hunt fish; tail-slaps, leaps, and breaches.

Kogias (Pygmy Sperm Whale, PYSW; Dwarf Sperm Whale, DWSW)

2 small, poorly known species (only 7–10 feet long), difficult to separate at sea and known collectively as kogias, for their genus name. Uncommon off the Southeast in warm deep waters beyond the shelf; Pygmy, at least, occurs rarely n. to New England in summer–fall. Very rarely seen unless seas are calm, typically as single animals logging at the surface. Wary of boats; usually dive with a low roll before you get close. As likely to be mistaken for a floating log as for any other marine mammal. Pygmy averages larger, with a slightly hump-backed profile forward of a lower, more sloping, and variably hooked dorsal fin; Dwarf has a flatter back and a taller, more prominent dorsal fin, but both species are variable.

Offshore Dolphins. In addition to the 2 species below, Pantropical Spotted Dolphin (very similar to Atlantic Spotted), Spinner Dolphin

Rough-toothed Dolphin (RTDO)

Inhabits warm, deep Gulf Stream waters beyond the shelf break; found occasionally on day trips from Mid-Atlantic states south. Relatively unobtrusive and rarely bow-rides; very rarely leaps. Usually in groups of 10–20, often in tight swimming formation; typically rather slow-moving, but can move quickly at times. Note sloping triangular dorsal fin, rather 'reptilian' and sloping head with whitish to pale pink lips and lower jaw.

Clymene Dolphin (Short-snouted Spinner) (CLDO)

The rather small Clymene Dolphin (pronounced Cly-me-nee) was not recognized as a full species until 1981, when it was separated from the highly variable Spinner Dolphin Stenella longirostris. It is scarce in warm, deep Gulf Stream waters beyond the shelf break, from Mid-Atlantic states south. Active and social, in groups of 5–50; bow-rides and leaps, at times head over tail while spinning. Note variable black 'lips' and distinct black tip to beak, sloping and slightly falcate dorsal fin. Spinner Dolphin has a longer and slimmer beak with black markings less distinct or absent.


True seabirds live mainly beyond sight of shore, and include the tubenoses such as petrels and storm-petrels, and the alcids (diving birds including puffins, murres, and Dovekie). Many tubenoses are long-distance migrants that breed in the Southern Hemisphere; East Coast alcids are shorter-distance migrants that breed in the North Atlantic.

Gulls: Familiar 'seabirds,' most species best seen on shore 26

Shearwater and Petrels: Like stiff-winged gulls with tubular nostrils, often in flocks, glide easily 28

Storm-Petrels: Tiny birds, like bats or swallows low over the sea 32

Alcids: Stocky, heavy-bodied diving birds like small ducks; flight low and direct; do not glide 34

Phalaropes: Small sandpipers that swim, often in flocks 39

Terns: Only ocean-going species are included; other terns best seen on shore 40

Jaegers: Gull-like predators with white wing patches 42

Skuas: Like big brown gulls with white wing patches 44

Tropicbirds: Like big fancy terns; long white tail streamers 45

Gannet and Boobies: Very large, streamlined diving birds 46

Frigatebird: Very large, mostly black, long forked tail 47

Rarer Seabirds     48


Excerpted from Offshore Sea Life ID Guide East Coast by STEVE N. G. HOWELL, Brian L. Sullivan. Copyright © 2016 Steve N. G. Howell, Brian L. Sullivan. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 5

Acknowledgments 11

Some Words Explained 11

Marine Mammals 12

Whales 12

Pilot Whales and Beaked Whales 16

Dolphins 18

Rarer Whales and Dolphins 22

Seabirds 26

Gulls 26

Shearwaters and Petrels 28

Storm-Petrels 32

Alcids 34

Phalaropes 39 Terns 40

Jaegers 42

Skuas 44

Tropicbirds 45

Gannet and Boobies 46

Frigatebird 47 Rarer Seabirds 48

Sea Turtles 50

Flyingfish and Flying Squid 52

Other Fish 55

Billfish and Sharks 56

Other Big Fish 58

Rarer Big Fish 59

Seaweeds 60

Jellyfish and Cousins 61

Landbirds 62

Species Codes, Scientific Names, and Index 63

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