Northern (or common) minke whale

You are more likely to see minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) at close quarters than other baleen whales because they are notoriously inquisitive and often approach boats.

They are black, brown, or dark grey on their backs and lighter on the belly and underside of their flippers. The most conspicuous feature is a diagonal band of white on the upper surface of each flipper.

Like fin whales, minke whales sometimes have a light chevron on the back, behind the head and two regions of light grey on each side - one just above and behind the flipper, and another just in front of and below the dorsal fin. The tail flukes can be pale grey, blue-grey or white on the underside, usually with a dark margin. The baleen plates are white, grey or cream in colour.

The minke whale is the smallest of the rorqual whales. Females reach an average length of 8.5m and males grow to about 8m. Like other baleen whales, those found in the northern hemisphere tend to be smaller than those from the southern hemisphere. Minke whales weigh between five to 10 tonnes.

Where are they found?
The minke is widespread and seasonally abundant in the North Atlantic Ocean. In the winter, they migrate southwards, although it is unclear where their breeding grounds are located. In summer, concentrations shift northward to Spitsbergen and the Barents Sea, the coast of Norway and the waters off Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland. In the northern Pacific, minkes are found in the Bering and Okhotsk Seas, and Gulf of Alaska in the spring and summer.

Like other great whales, minkes migrate to temperate and tropical waters in winter and polar waters in summer. Minke whales are often solitary, although they often travel in pairs or groups of three. In higher latitudes they are sometimes found in larger groups.

What do they eat?
Minke whales tend to feed on the food source that is most abundant in a given area, primarily krill and small schooling fish, but occasionally larger fish such as mature arctic cod and haddock. In the North Pacific, minke whales reportedly feed on euphausiids, copepods and sand eel, and those in the Okhotsk Sea feed on krill, and sometimes fish. In the North Atlantic, minke whales feed on a wide variety of prey, including sand eel, euphausiids, copepods, salmon, capelin, mackerel, and cod. Southern minke whales feed mainly on krill (euphausiids) in the Antarctic, although they also consume various species of fish.

How long do they live?
In the eastern North Pacific and North Atlantic, breeding may occur throughout the year, but there appears to be a calving peak in winter. The gestation period is believed to be around ten months. Females give birth to a calf every 12 to 14 months. Killer whales prey on minkes, as do other natural predators. They are believed to live to 40 to 50-years-old.

Minke whales and hunting
Northern minke whales are caught in the North East Atlantic by Norway pursuant to an objection to the International Whaling Commission's (IWC) whaling moratorium, and by Greenlanders as "aboriginal subsistence" whaling. Japan hunts 150 whales a year in the North Pacific under scientific permit. Japan also hunts up to 440 southern minkes a year in the Antarctic under scientific permit.

Conservation concerns
In addition to problems caused by environmental change and toxics, the by-catch of minke whales in fishing nets and traps is a cause for concern.
The Northern (or Common) minke whale (<i>Balaenoptera acutorostrata</i>) / ©: IFAW / J. Gordon
The Northern (or Common) minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata)
© IFAW / J. Gordon
Note: the minke whales in the Southern Hemisphere are a separate species, Southern (or Antarctic) minke (Balaenoptera bonaerensis)
Minke whale range  / ©: Wikipedia
Minke whale range
© Wikipedia
The Northern (or Common) minke whale (<i>Balaenoptera acutorostrata</i>) / ©: WWF / Morten Lindhard
The Northern (or Common) minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata)
© WWF / Morten Lindhard

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