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Fin Whale

fin whale south east of Montauk

(Balaenoptera physalus)

CRESLI Whale Watch


Fin whale photo gallery
Video of fin whales near Montauk, Summer 2013

Video of fin whales near Montauk, Summer 2010

Fin whales are the second largest species of whale and the second largest animal ever to have lived.  Fin whales (also know as finback whales) can reach lengths of over 80 feet and weights of more than 160,000 lbs in the northern hemisphere and over 85 feet and 170,000 lbs in the southern hemisphere and  are distributed around the world except for the tropics, i.e., they have an antitropical distribution.

Fin whales feed on a wide array of prey species, depending upon availability, ranging from small schooling fish such as sand eels, herring and tinker mackerel, to crustaceans such as krill and copepods, to squid.  A variety of feeding techniques are employed in order to concentrate prey, essentially fin whales are "gulpers," taking in large quantities of food and water in each mouthful.

Fin whales are extremely fast, sleek, muscular whales, sometimes referred to as "the greyhounds of the sea"  because of the great speed that they can reach (>25 knots). 

Fin whales get their name from the very prominent and falcate (curved) dorsal fin, situated around 2/3 of the way back from the head.  There are 6 different dorsal fin shapes and we use them to help identify individuals.  Fin whales also have a distinctive V-shaped pattern of coloration around their heads called chevrons and may also have dark eye stripes and ear stripes which form a pattern called a blaze.  Dorsal fin shape, chevron and blaze patterns, and scars can be used to identify individuals.  Fin whales have asymmetrically colored jaws and baleen plates.  The right side lower jaw and the baleen on its tip are white, while the left side are dark.  This pattern can be seen occasionally in minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), but EVERY fin whale exhibits this asymmetry.  Although there are many hypotheses, we still have no definitive idea as to the  function of the asymmetrical coloration.  The ventral surface of the body, flukes, and flippers are white, and the rest of the body is dark gray to brown. 

falcate dorsal fin of fin whale

right side of the anterior of a fin whale

Notice the white color of the right side lower jaw visible as the second animal surfaces, this is typical of all fin whales.

Every fin whale has an asymmetrically colored head, with the right side of the lower jaw (and its baleen) being white, while the left side is much darker. Asymmetry is head coloration is also seen on occasion in Minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), but in fin whales, this asymmetry is found in every individual. Although there are a variety of hypotheses concerning the function of this asymmetry, we are not sure why it exists.

Also notice the color pattern that can be seen just behind the head. These patterns, in addition to dorsal fin shape, and scarring, can be used to identify individual fin whales.

Fin whales may dive to depths of over 100 fathoms and can remain submerged for up to 25 minutes. Typically, fin whales remain near the surface for a series of breaths every 10-12 seconds and will then go into a sounding or terminal dive. When feeding near the surface, terminal dives last an average of 2.5 minutes; when feeding at depth, they will last an average of 3.0 minutes.  Fin whales arch their backs as they enter into a sounding dive, but do not usually show their flukes.  

terminal dive of calfCalf (~30 feet long) in a terminal (down) dive. Note the arched back and tail stock, typical of a fin whale terminal dive.

Fin whales may show their side-flukes when rolling near the surface and may breach on occasion.

A fin whale's blow can rise 20 feet and can be seen for several miles.  Fin whales, like other mysticetes, are often solitary, but can be seen in opportunistic feeding group of 3-20 or more when food is abundant.  The one and only stable association in fin whales is between a mother and her calf, lasting for perhaps 6-7 months.

 

 

 Fin whale blow off  40 yards from the vessel

 

The fin whale is the most abundant large baleen whale in the Long Island region. Fin whales are present in Long Island waters year round, although there are seasonal distribution differences. During April through August fin whales are usually found in any of five areas located within 30 miles of land. These are areas where intensive feeding activity usually occurs. During September through early December the whales usually move offshore along the continental shelf near the 200 meter contour. In January through March they are found feeding again within 1 mile of the eastern shores of Long Island. During the summer feeding groups often involve aggregations of 20 or more animals. In the winter aggregations are of small groups of 3 to four animals. Calves are observed year round with apparent newborns observed mainly in early July.

The waters of NY are home to approximately 200-400 fin whales, while the numbers in the Northwestern Atlantic are conservatively estimated  to be approximately 3522 (http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/sars/pdf/ao2013_draft.pdf).  In the Southern Hemisphere, there are thought to be over 38,000 fin whales (http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/full/2478/0); in the North Pacific about 10,000.  The total population in the North Atlantic may exceed 26,000.

Although fin whales have been legally protected from legal hunting in US waters since 1972 (Marine Mammal Protection Act), they weren't protected world-wide until the 1986 International Whaling Commission moratorium on commercial whaling.  It is estimated that over 950,000 fin whales may have been taken world wide during the last 100 years of commercial whaling.

Fin whales are listed in  the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) Red List and the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC) as, "endangered." A species or population listed as "endangered" is "facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future." Fin whales are listed as "Endangered" by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and have been listed a such since the inception of the US Endangered Species Act (1970).

Information about the IUCN Red List categories and criteria.  

PDF copy of the categories and criteria

Although fin whales are relatively common and are believed to be the dominant cetacean species during all seasons in the US Exclusive Economic Zone,  scientists don't have enough data to determine the fin whale's population trends.  It seems however, that fin whale numbers have increased significantly  over the past decade.

fin whale surface sequenceThis white lower jaw can be also seen in the animated fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) surface and dive sequence below. This animation was created using 5 sequential photographs taken on August 7th 1998.

 

 

 

 

The baleen on the tip of the right jaw is also colored white.  This can be seen in the images below, of a dead fin whale found at Smith Point, at the eastern-most tip of Fire Island, NY in January 1996.  This whale is lying on its left side, with its ventral (belly) surface facing the shoreline.  This individual had been struck by a vessel and fatally injured.



 

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