Wildlife of the Week!

©Andrew Lees/ Five Star Whale Watching. A Fin Whale surfaces during a rare encounter in the Salish Sea. Note the similar appearance to that of a Minke Whale, or even the Humpback Whale.

Did you know that the second largest whale species in the world has been spotted in the Salish Sea before? Today for our “Wildlife of the Week”, we highlight the Fin Whale, an amazing leviathan of the deep. Although it is generally known not to be a true Salish Sea species (due to very few encounters in the area), we still wanted to bring your attention to this impressive creature. At first glance to some, the Fin Whale’s appearance at the surface may appear similar to more common baleen whales in the Salish Sea, such as the Humpback or Minke Whale. To learn more about the Fin Whale, read on below!

The Fin Whale is only smaller in size to the Blue Whale, and both species are related to other rorquals, such as the Minke Whale, Humpback and Bryde’s Whale. As seen in rorquals, the Fin Whale has a tapered, long and hydrodynamic body shape to allow for efficient swimming. The curved dorsal fin on the back and expandable throat can make the whale appear similar in shape and appearance to other rorqual relatives. Measuring up to 65-88 feet long and weighing between 50-80 tons (females larger than males), the Fin Whale is a true giant of the ocean. As in various other cetacean species, the Fin Whale has a dark topside (gray or brown/black) with a light underside (cream or white).

To tell a Fin Whale from other large whales, it is interesting to note that the two sides of their head/jaw are different colors; the left side a white or cream color and the right a black mottle. Running along the side of the whale’s body from the blowhole, are light-colored strips, or “chevrons”. Their lower back also displays a sharp ridge which has earned the whale the name, “Razorback”. They are very fast swimmers and capable of reaching 37 km/hr.

The Fin Whale is described to live in all the world’s oceans, however it is more rare to spot one in sheltered waters so close to shore, such as in the Salish Sea. It is believed they prefer cool temperate, cold Arctic or Antarctic waters rather than tropical seas. The Northern Hemisphere whales are recorded as slightly larger than those of the Southern Hemisphere; note that there are three subspecies and various populations within these distinctions. The animals may follow migration routes that lead them to subtropical regions for mating and raising young during the winter, but it is also suggested that they dwell in deep ocean depths during this time.

The Fin Whale, as a baleen whale, feeds using a system of biological filtration. Being equipped with a natural sieve in the form of baleen (keratin hair-like structures) and an expandable throat, the Fin Whale feeds as many other baleen whales do. It engulfs large amounts of prey-filled water, separates and traps the food, and expels the water out of its mouth. A meal is then ready in the form prey-filled baleen that the whale can easily consume. Prey includes crustaceans (like krill), squid or schooling fish. It is significant to note that the difference in color hues on the jaw might work in the whale’s favour to hunt and organize their prey.

When Fin Whales are young, they are dependent on their mothers for protection and nursing. A Fin Whale mother will be pregnant for an entire year, and will produce a new calf every 3-4 years. At birth and until the baby is 6-8 months old, it will nurse on its mothers thick, nutrient-rich milk. A newborn weighs up to 2 tons! A long-lived species, the lifespan of the Fin Whale is believed to be up to 90 years old.

Many baleen whales are often found alone or in small group associations. The Fin Whale may be seen alone, but can often be spotted in social groups of between 3-7 individuals. More rarely, the Fin Whale can be spotted in large, short-term gatherings. Though they may travel and spend time as solitary animals, it is believed that their low-frequency vocalizations can carry through the ocean over immense distances to others of their species.

As some of you may know, the Humpback Whale that is commonly seen in the Salish Sea, often lifts its fluke above the surface before diving. Fin Whales do not often perform this act when diving; thus this is another useful quality to help you with identifying a Fin Whale. If you do catch a glimpse of the Fin Whale fluke, it has a distinct notch in the centre and considerable width.

The Fin Whale, as with many other baleen species, was considerably affected by whaling in the early-mid 1900’s. The Northern Hemisphere population is estimated to be greater than that of the Southern Hemisphere. With whaling today no longer the primary threat, Fin Whales face a new set of challenges in the form of vessel/ ship strikes, pollution, climate change and entanglement with fishing gear. It is important to take steps to protect this giant of the deep, such as respectful and educated boating behaviour, which Five Star and many other whale-watching companies have always advocated.

We hope you enjoyed learning about this remarkable creature. Try out some trivia below to learn more!

  1. True or False? Hybrid offspring of a Blue Whale and Fin Whale have been seen. (ANS: True).
  2. The Fin Whale is called the “the ______ of the sea” as well as the “_____ whale”. (ANS: Greyhound, Finback).
  3. A Fin Whale has between __ to __ throat pleats. (ANS: 50-100).

BONUS CHALLENGE:

How deep can a Fin Whale dive?

1800 feet.

Article Authored By: Alexa D., B.Sc./ Five Star Whale Watching.

To learn more, check out our References below!

  1. “Fin Whale”. American Cetacean Society. Fin Whale (acsonline.org).
  2. “Fin Whale”. NOAA Fisheries. U.S. Department of Commerce. Fin Whale | NOAA Fisheries.
  3. “Fin Whale”. World Wildlife Fund. Fin Whale | Species | WWF (worldwildlife.org).