Marine Mammals Marine Life



Lessons and Activities

Real World Data

Background Information

Career Profiles

Marine mammals are found in every ocean. They also represent a variety of ecological roles, including herbivores (manatees), filter feeders (baleen whales), and top predators (killer whales); but what is a marine mammal?

Killer Whales Cruise Past Stellar Sea Lions
Killer whales cruise past Stellar Sea Lions on Unimak Island, Alaska.
Source: NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service Image Gallery

Marine mammals meet the five characteristics of a mammal. They breathe air through lungs, are warm-blooded, have hair (at some time during life), bear live young, and produce milk to nurse their young. They are a diverse group of mammals with unique physical adaptations allowing them to thrive in the marine environment with extreme temperatures, depths, pressure, and darkness.

Marine mammals are classified into four different groups; Cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walruses), sirenians (manatees and dugongs), and marine fissipeds (polar bears and sea otters). There are over 70 different species of cetaceans that spend their whole lives in water. Cetaceans are categorized into two main groups: baleen whales (mysticetes) and toothed whales (odontocetes). Pinnipeds are carnivores that use flippers for movement on land and in the water. Their name comes from the suborder called pinnipedia which means "fin-footed." Pinnipeds spend the majority of their lives swimming and eating in water and come onto land or ice floes to bear their young, sunbathe, and molt. Like cetaceans, sirenians also spend their whole lives in water. "Sirenia" comes from the word "siren." "Sirens" are legendary Greek sea beauties who lured sailors into the sea. We think historic mermaid sightings were actually sirenians, not the mythical half women, half fish. The marine fissipeds are unique because they are considered marine mammals, but spend most of their time on land and only part of the time in the water, mainly to hunt for their food.

Threats and Protection

Threats to marine mammals are largely from human impacts, including accidental capture in fishing gear, habitat destruction, poaching, pollution, harassment, and ship strikes. All marine mammals in waters of the United States are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which includes over 60 marine mammal species. NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service works in collaboration with several partners to protect these species. Citizens can also help protect marine mammals by showing proper ocean etiquette. Admire them from a distance and never touch, feed, harm, or swim with a marine mammal.

Educational Connection

The education resources in this collection provide educators and students opportunities to explore the adaptations, population dynamics, ecology, threats, behaviors, and anatomy of marine mammals. This collection includes several videos, lessons, activities, games, data resources, and career profiles to help students better understand the biology of marine mammals as well as their role in protecting these species.

NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources and Marine Mammal Education Web (AFSC)
Last Updated: 3/27/2012

Grey whale saved in Alaska
NOAA's Big Miracle Maker

2/1/2012 (Alaska NMFS - Dave Withrow)
In February 2012, Universal Pictures will premiere Big Miracle, a new movie inspired by "Operation Breakthrough," the real-life rescue of three gray whales trapped by sea ice off the coast of Barrow, Alaska, in 1988. Dave Withrow, a NOAA Fisheries marine mammal biologist, participated throughout the two-week rescue... Read More

NBC footage of effect of Gulf Oil spill on dolphins
Dolphins - Partners in the Quest to Restore the Gulf

8/15/2011 (NOAA Response and Restoration)
After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, teams of biologists from NOAA and other federal and state agencies mobilized in the Gulf of Mexico. Their mission was to assess the impacts from the spill to a wide range of important natural resources - including dolphins (Flash video, 2:11 min MSNBC)... Read More

Scientists attaches critter cam to whale
Getting a Whale's-Eye View in Stellwagen Bank

7/15/2011 (NMFS)
A team of government and university scientists is peering into the depths of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in an attempt to better understand whale behavior and the underwater world they inhabit using a National Geographic Crittercam... Read More