Fin Whale

Species Profile: The Fin Whale

Despite being one of the largest whales alive today, the Fin Whale is also one of the fastest cetaceans in the Earth’s waters.

Fin Whale
Fin Whale In The Kenai Fjords Near Resurrection Bay, Alaska (Photo: Lori Mazzuca/WikiMedia Commons, cc by-s.a. 2.5)

The Fin Whale or finback whale is a baleen whale and the second largest creature on Earth; second only to the Blue Whale.

This remarkable creature is unique in a number of ways. For one thing they produce the lowest frequency vocalization of any whale. They produce sounds as loud as 188 decibels but the frequency is so low that humans can’t hear it.

In addition, though so large, this whale is sleek and built for speed.  American naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews described the fin whale as “the greyhound of the sea … for its beautiful, slender body is built like a racing yacht and the animal can surpass the speed of the fastest ocean steamship.”

It’s body is long and slender, brownish/gray on top and paler underneath. There exist 3 recognized distinct subspecies of this whale; the Pygmy fin whale, the North Atlantic, and the Southern Hemisphere kind. Being a filter feeder, its food consists mainly of small schooling fish, a variety of squid, and crustaceans like copepods and krill.

Similarly to other  large whales, fin whales were heavily hunted by whalers during the 20th century. Because of the large numbers of individuals killed, the IUCN now lists the Fin Whale as an Endangered species.

1) Scientific Name

Balaenoptera Physalus

2) Scientific Classification:

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Cetacea
  • Family: Balaenopteridaethe
  • Genus: Balaenoptera
  • Species: Balaenoptera Physalus

3) Life Expectancy

Fin whales live very long. Typically, they live well over 94 years of age with some individuals reaching 135 to 140 years.

4) Average/Maximum Length

The largest confirmed fin whale was 25.9 meters (85 feet). Another large specimen was a pregnant female that was 22.7 meters (74 feet).

5) Average/ Maximum Weight

The largest fin whales weigh between 74 tonnes (82 short tons) and 114 tonnes (126 short tons).

6) Maximum Swimming Speed

This animal is one of the fastest cetaceans in the waters. It’s so fast that it can sustain speeds between 37 km/h (23 mph) and 41 km/h (25 mph). Also, it will attain swimming speeds of up to 46 km/h (29 mph) in short bursts.

These speed levels have earned it the appropriate nickname “the greyhound of the sea.”

 Unlike other large whales, Fin whales are social creatures and can be seen in groups of up to 100 animals.

7) Interaction With/Danger To Humans

  • Whaling

During the 19th century, the fin whale could outrun most ships of that era so it often escaped whalers. But that changed with the introduction of steam-powered boats. The invention of exploding harpoons also helped to kill and secure commercial quantities of this whale.

This led to relentless hunting of fin whales along with large species like the blue whale and the sei whale on an industrial scale.

Whalers went after them primarily for blubber, oil, and baleen. In total, hunters caught about 704,000 fin whales in Antarctic waters alone between 1904 and 1975. By the time factory ships joined the hunt, about 29,000 fin whales could be taken per year.

  • Whale Watching

Fin whales are a regular spectacle on whale-watching excursions worldwide. Some popular spots for whale watching encounters include the Southern California Bight. Fin whales can be seen there all year round.

Other popular spots include Point Vicente (Palos Verdes), the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Gulf of Maine, the Bay of Fundy, in the Bay of Biscay, the Strait of Gibraltar, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Drake Passage.

 Like other whales, male fin whales make long, loud, low-frequency sounds. As a matter of fact, blue and fin whales produce the lowest-frequency sounds made by any creature.

8) Reproduction Details

The fin whale mates in temperate seas during the winter, after which they have an 11 to 12 month gestation period. Newborn fin whales measure between 6.0 and 6.5 meters (19.7 and 21.3 feet) in length and weigh approximately 1,800 kg (4,000 lbs).

The mother whales wean their calves at 6 or 7 months of age. By this time, the calves are ready for solid food and will accompany their mothers to the summer feeding grounds.

Females breed every 2 or 3 years to produce single births but with very rare multiple births. Calves will remain with their mothers for about one year.

This species reaches full physical maturity at between 25 and 30 years

9) Diet/Hunting Pattern Of The Fin Whale

As mentioned before, the fin whale is a filter-feeder with a diet made up of small schooling fish, squid and crustaceans especially copepods and krill.

 The Killer Whale (Orca) is the only known natural predator of Fin Whales besides humans.

10) Alternative Names

  • Finback Whale
  • Razorback Whale
  • Common Rorqual Whale
  • Herring Whale
  • Flathead
  • Finner
  • Greyhound Whale

11) Population And Conservation Status

The effects of commercial whaling on this species during the 19th and 20th centuries were disastrous. Hence by 1997 only 38,000 individuals survived.

For now, global population estimates put its population at less than 100,000 to a maximum of 119,000.

Also, the IWC prohibited hunting of this whale in the Southern Hemisphere in 1976 though the then Soviet Union still engaged in killing protected whale species in the North Pacific and Southern Hemisphere.

Other modern day threats to fin whales include ship collisions, pollution, and entanglement in fishing gear.

This whale is protected under several international agreements including the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans in the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area (ACCOBAMS), and the Pacific Cetaceans MOU.

The Fin Whale is listed as an Endangered species by the IUCN.

 Fin whales are the most commonly struck whales by ships worldwide.

12) Ancestry And History

Friderich Martens was the first person to describe the fin whale back in 1675. Followed later by Paul Dudley in 1725.

Part of its scientific name, physalus, comes from the Greek word physa, which means “blows.” This is in reference to the powerful and vehement spouting of water from its blow hole.

Fin whales are rorquals; they belong to the same family as the Humpback whale (Megaptera Novaeangliae), the blue whale, Bryde’s whale, the sei whale, and the minke whales. This family speciated from the other baleen whales as far back as the middle Miocene

Surprisingly, recent DNA evidence indicates that the fin whale could be more closely related to the humpback whale and the gray whale than to the whales in its own genus e.g. the minke whales.

Also, there is very little genetic distance between blue and fin whales. Such that they have produced hybrid offspring in the past.

13) Distribution and Habitat

They swim in the waters around Southern California Bight, Point Vicente (Palos Verdes), the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Gulf of Maine, the Bay of Fundy, in the Bay of Biscay, the Strait of Gibraltar, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Drake Passage (Antarctica).

Fin whales are commonly found in all the major oceans of the Earth, from polar to tropical waters. They only avoid waters close to polar ice packs.

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