Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus)

Aerial view of fin whale
IUCN Red List species status – Endangered ENDANGERED

Top facts

  • The fin whale is the second largest cetacean after the blue whale
  • Known as the 'greyhound of the sea', the fin whale can reach speeds of up to 37 kilometres per hour
  • The dintinctive curved dorsal fin of this species can reach lengths of up to 60 centimetres
  • The fin whale can dive to depths of 230 metres and can stay submerged for about 15 minutes
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Fin whale fact file

Fin whale description

GenusBalaenoptera (1)

Fin whales are the among the fastest of all rorqual whales, reaching speeds of 37 kilometres per hour, and are known as the 'greyhounds of the sea'. This whale is light grey to brown-black in colour on the upper surface and white on the underside, flippers and fluke (4). The patterns on the jaw are asymmetrical, and the lower jaw is grey or black on the left and cream on the right, and there are between 50 and 100 grooves on the underside of the body which extend from the throat to the naval (4). While feeding, the bluish grey baleen plates are visible, which can be up to 76 centimetres long and 30 centimetres wide and are bluish to grey in colour with white fringes (2). The prominent dorsal fin can be up to 60 centimetres in length and curves strongly (4). The male and female tend to be very similar in their general appearance, but the female is slightly larger than the male (4)

Also known as
Common rorqual, Finback, Fin-backed whale, Finner, Herring Whale, Razorback.
Baleine À Nageoires, Baleine Fin, Baleinoptère Commune, rorqual commun.
Ballena Aleta, Ballena Boba, Rorcual Común.
Length: up to 24 m (4)
45,360 - 63,500 kg (4)

Fin whale biology

Fin whales are most often found alone, although pods containting between three and seven individuals are relatively common (4). This species spends spring and early summer in cold feeding grounds at high latitudes, migrating to more southerly areas for winter and the breeding season (5). Northern and southern populations never meet because the seasonal patterns are reversed in the two hemispheres, and so they migrate to the equator at different times of year (5). Mating takes place in winter, and as gestation takes about 11 months, births occur in the winter breeding grounds where conception took place (5). A single calf is produced, which is nursed for six to eight months (4); when weaned, the calf measures between 10 and 12 metres and begin the journey with the female to the feeding grounds (5). Females produce calves every couple of years after reaching sexual maturity at three to twelve years of age. Full maturity is usually attained at 25 to 30 years of age (5).

Fin whales feed by filtering planktonic crustaceans, fish and squid through their baleen plates. Individuals can dive to depths of 230 metres and can stay submerged for about 15 minutes (7) (8). The blow of a fin whale can reach heights of up to six metres and is a slim cone shape (7).


Fin whale range

This species has a global distribution but is quite rare in tropical or iced polar seas. It occurs in the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Arctic Oceans (5); the species is split into two subspecies which do not appear to come into contact, one in the south (B. p. quoyi) and one in the north (B. p. physalus) (5). The fin whale is the only rorqual commonly found in the Mediterranean (6).

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Fin whale habitat

A pelagic and coastal species, sometimes occurring in water as shallow as 30 metres (5).


Fin whale status

The fin whale is classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix I of CITES (3).

IUCN Red List species status – Endangered


Fin whale threats

The major threat to the survival of this species has been hunting; their blubber, oil and baleen were all highly prized (4). Between 1935 and 1965, over 30,000 individuals were killed every year (7). At present, there is evidence of man-made injuries to fin whales, many of which have resulted from collisions with boats (9). Like other large whales, they are also threatened by environmental change, including noise and chemical pollution (10).


Fin whale conservation

In 1985, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned the hunting of all whales by signatory states. The IWC regulates the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (1946), and also provides scientific advice to signatory states (11). Conservationists are worried however, that these protection measures are a case of 'too little too late', the southern hemisphere is thought to support only 5,000 fin whales, and the northern seas hold just 2 to 3,000 individuals (4). It seems likely that the species may never recover from past over-exploitation.

To help conserve this species by working in the field with Earthwatch, click here.
Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi is a principal sponsor of ARKive. EAD is working to protect and conserve the environment as well as promoting sustainable development in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.
View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.
The UK Biodiversity Action Plan for this species is available at UK BAP.

Find out more

For more information on whales and dolphins and their conservation see:

To learn about efforts to conserve the fin whale see:



Authenticated (8/10/02) by WDCS, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.



In some whales, the comb-like fibrous plates hanging from the upper jaw that are used to sieve food from sea water. These are often referred to as whalebone.
A group comprising all whales, dolphins and porpoises.
Diverse group of arthropods (a phylum of animals with jointed limbs and a hard chitinous exoskeleton) characterised by the possession of two pairs of antennae, one pair of mandibles (parts of the mouthparts used for handling and processing food) and two pairs of maxillae (appendages used in eating, which are located behind the mandibles). Includes crabs, lobsters, shrimps, slaters, woodlice and barnacles.
Dorsal fin
The unpaired fin found on the back of the body of fish, or the raised structure on the back of most cetaceans.
The state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth.
Relating to or inhabiting the open ocean.
Aquatic organisms that drift with water movements; may be either phytoplankton (plants), or zooplankton (animals).
Derives from the Norwegian word meaning ‘furrow whale’, and refers to the folds or grooves of skin below the mouth that are a characteristic feature of the Baleanopteridae family of whales.
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.


  1. IUCN Red List (July, 2016)
  2. Macdonald, D. (2001) The New Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  3. CITES (July, 2016)
  4. American Cetacean Society (July, 2016)
  5. O’Corry-Crowe, G.M. (2002) Beluga whale. In: Perrin, W.F., Würsig, B. and Thewissen, J.G.M. (Eds) Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Academic Press, London.
  6. Carwardine, M. (1995) Whales, dolphins and porpoises. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  7. (June, 2008)
  8. Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (June, 2008)
  9. Pesante, G., Zanardelli, M. and Panigada, S. (2000) Evidence of man-made injuries on Mediterranean fin whales. European Research on Cetaceans, 14: 192 - 193.
  10. Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (February, 2002)
  11. International Whaling Commission (June, 2008)

Image credit

Aerial view of fin whale  
Aerial view of fin whale

© Mark Carwardine

Mark Carwardine
5 Chesterfield Road
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0) 117 9048934


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