E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Wildlife of British Columbia

Balaenoptera physalus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Common Rorqual; Fin Whale; Finback; Razorback
Family: Balaenopteridae

Photo of species

© Lori Mazzuca  Email the photographer   (Photo ID #14679)

E-Fauna BC Static Map
Distribution of Balaenoptera physalus in British Columbia
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Species Information

The Fin Whale is a baleen whale, and is the second largest whale in the world (the blue whale is the largest). Adults can range in length up to 24 m in the Northern Hemisphere and 27 m in the Southern Hemisphere, weight ranges from 1800 to 2700 kg (4000 to 600 lbs) (Folkens 2002). It is very sleek and slender in appearance with a v-shaped, pointed head and distinctive colouration--it is dark above (black or dark brownish-gray) and white below, with asymmetrical head colour (lower left jaw is dark, lower right jaw is white), light-gray chevrons on the back of the head, and streaks or swirls of ligher colour reaching up from the belly (Jefferson et al. 2008). It has 260-480 gray to black (often striated/fringed) baleen plates on each side--plates on the right side are often lighter--and 50 to 100 long throat plates (Jefferson et al. 2008).

Identification and Subspecies Information

Fin Whales are rorquals, in the Balaenopteridae family of whales, which includes the Humpback Whale, the Blue Whale, the Sei Whale and the Minke Whale (Wikipedia 2011). Two subspecies of Fin Whale are presently recognized: the Northern fin whale, Balaenoptera physalus physalus (found in the North Atlantic), and the Antarctic fin whale, Balaenoptera physalus quoyi, (found in the Southern Ocean) (Wikipedia 2011). Carretta et al. (2009) report that "genetic studies have shown that the population of Fin Whales in the Gulf of California is isolated from fin whales in the rest of the eastern North Pacific and is an evolutionary unique population (Bérubé et al. 2002).". Hybrids between the Fin Whale and the Blue Whale are reported (Amason et al. 1991). Genetic work has shown that the Fin Whale may be more closely related to the Humpback Whale than to other members of the Balaenopteridae (Wikipedia 2011).



This species is usually found alone or in small groups (pods of 2-7 individuals) (Folkers 2002, Jefferson et al. 2008).


Balaenopterid whales are long-lived species with life spans between 50 and 100 years (Gregr et al. 2006).


This species feeds on small schooling fish, squid, and crustaceans which are captured on their baleen as water is passed through (Mizroch et al. 1984, Wikipedia 2011). It has been observed feeding with Humpback Whales on schools of fish that were feeding on patches of plankton (Watkins and Shevill 1979). In the North Pacific, research has shown that diet includes primarily euphausiids (70%), copepods (25%) with some fish and squid (Gregr et al. 2006).


No breeding grounds for this species are known. Females give birth every 2 to 3 years to a single calf (sometimes twins) (Folkens 2002). Reproduction is tied to the annual feeding/migration cycle and calves are born in the winter feeding grounds and weaned at 7 to 11 months when they are approx 12 m in length (they are 6 m at birth) (Mizrock et al. 1984). Calves are reported to remain with their mothers for the first six to eight months (Folken 2002), sometimes up to one year (Clapham and Seipt 1991).


Global Range

The Fin Whale is a cosmopolitan species that is found in both the northern and southern hemispheres. It is more common in temperate waters than in tropical waters, however, the overall range is not well-known (Folkens 2002, Jefferson et al. 2008). They migrate seasonally through open ocean: "The general migratory pattern of fin whales, like most balaenopterids, is a movement between poleward feeding areas in the summer months and lower latitudes in the winter months...pregnant females arriving early (in feeding grounds) and leaving early" Mizrock et al. 1984). Aggregations of Fin Whales are reported in the US by Carretta et al. (2009): "More recent observations show aggregations of fin whales year round in southern/central California (Dohl et al. 1983; Barlow 1997; Forney et al. 1995), year-round in the Gulf of California (Tershy et al. 1993), in summer in Oregon (Green et al. 1992; McDonald 1994), and in summer/autumn in the Shelikof Strait/Gulf".
Distribution in British Columbia

This species is infrequently observed off the BC coast. Gregr et al. (2006, 9) indicate that "historically, fin whales were frequently observed in exposed coastal seas (Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound) and occasionally in the more protected waters of Queen Charlotte Strait and the Strait of Georgia.....An analysis of whaling records from British Columbia whaling stations identified fin whale habitat along the continental shelf, in the exposed inland waters of Dixon Entrance and Hecate Strait, and in a region offshore of northern Vancouver Island". Summer feeding aggregations may be present off the coast of Vancouver Island (Gregr et al. 2006).

Gregr et al. (2006, 9-10) provide the following summary of sightings from 2002-2004: "75 fin whale sightings between 2002 and 2004 in off-shelf waters, near the shelf break boundary of Queen Charlotte Sound, in Hecate Strait, and in Dixon Entrance. Summer cruises in 2002 and 2003 sighted 12 fin whales in Queen Charlotte Sound. Recent summer sightings have also been made off southern Vancouver Island (COSEWIC 2004). An opportunistic winter cruise in February 2004 resulted in sightings off the north end of Vancouver Island and in Hecate Strait (CRP-DFO, unpublished data)."


Conservation Issues

The Pacific population of the Fin Whale has been designated as a threatened in Canada (Gregr et al. 2006--National Recovery Strategy). The reason for designation is given by Gregr et al. 2006) as: "Currently sighted only infrequently on former whaling grounds off British Columbia. Coastal whaling took at least 7,600 animals from the population between 1905 and 1967, and thousands of additional animals were taken by pelagic whalers through the 1970s. Catch rates from coastal whaling stations declined precipitously off British Columbia in the 1960s. Based on the severe depletion and lack of sufficient time for recovery, it is inferred that present population is below 50% of its level 60-90 years ago. Individuals continue to be at risk from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear".

Carretta et al. (2009) provide the following population information for this species in the North Pacific: "The initial pre-whaling population of fin whales in the North Pacific was estimated to be 42,000-45,000 (Ohsumi and Wada 1974). In 1973, the North Pacific population was estimated to have been reduced to 13,620-18,680 (Ohsumi and Wada 1974), of which 8,520-10,970 were estimated to belong to the eastern Pacific stock....There is some indication that fin whales have increased in abundance in California coastal waters between 1979/80 and 1991 (Barlow 1994) and between 1991 and 1996 (Barlow 1997), but these trends are not significant. Although the population in the North Pacific is expected to have grown since receiving protected status in 1976, the possible effects of continued unauthorized take (Yablokov 1994) and incidental ship strikes and gillnet mortality make this uncertain...Fishermen report that large rorquals (blue and fin whales) usually swim through nets without entangling and with very little damage to the nets." Knowlton et al. (2001) report that in an analysis of ship strikes on whale species, Fin Whales were most frequently hit and that "in some areas, one-third of all fin whale and right whale strandings appear to involve ship strikes."

Read the Canadian National Recovery Strategy for the Pacific population of this species.

Status Information

Origin StatusProvincial StatusBC List
(Red Blue List)
NativeS2NRedT (May 2005)
BC Ministry of Environment: BC Species and Ecosystems Explorer--the authoritative source for conservation information in British Columbia.

Additional Notes

This is one of the fastest species of whale, and can reach speeds of 37 km/h (Jefferson et al. 2008). It is often referred to as the 'greyhound of the ocean'.

View a Vancouver Sun article on the Fin Whale in BC.

Report sightings to the BC Cetacean Sightings Network.

Additional Photo Sources

Species References

Arnason, U., R. Spilliaert A. Palsdottir, and A. Arnason. 1991. Molecular identification of hybrids between the two largest whale species, the blue whale (Blaenoptera musculus) and the fin whale (B. physalus). Hereditas 115 (2): 183-9.

Carretta, James V., Karin A. Forney, Mark S. Lowry, Jay Barlow, Jason Baker, Dave Johnston, Brad Hanson, Marcia M. Muto, Deanna Lynch, and Lilian Carswell. 2009. U.S. Pacific Marine Mammal Stock Assessments. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service, Southwest Fisheries Science Center. Available online.

Clapham, Philip J. and Irene E. Seipt. 1991. Resightings of Independent Fin Whales, Balenoptera physalus, on maternal summer ranges. Journal of Mammalogy 72 (4).

Folkens, Pieter. 2002. Guide to Marine Mammals of the World Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Gregr, E.J., J. Calambokidis, L. Convey, J.K.B. Ford, R.I. Perry, L. Spaven, and M. Zacharias. 2006. Recovery Strategy for Blue, Fin, and Sei Whales (Balaenoptera musculus, B. physalus, and B. borealis) in Pacific Canadian Waters. IN Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series. Vancouver: Fisheries and Oceans Canada. vii + 53 pp. Available online.

Jefferson, Thomas A., Marc A. Webber and Robert L. Pitman. 2008. Marine Mammals of the World: A Comprehensive Guide to their Identification. Elsevier, New York. Available online.

Laist, David W., Amy R. Knowlton, James G. Mead, Anne S. Collet, and Michaela Podesta. Collisions Between Ships and Whales. Marine Mammal Science 17(1): 35–75.

Mizroch, Sally A, Dale W. Rice and Jeffrey M. Breiwick. 1984. The Fin Whale. Marine Fisheries Review 46 (4): 20-24. Available online.

Watkins, William and William E. Shevill. 1979. Aerial Observation of Feeding Behaviour in Four Baleen Whales: Eubalaena glacialis, Balenoptera borealis, Megaptera novaeangliae, and Balenoptera physalus. Journal of Mammalogy 60 (1).

General References

Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2021. E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed: 2024-05-18 8:09:36 PM]
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