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
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.
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.
Calf (~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
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
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
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).
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.
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.
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.