Fin Whale - Oceana

Marine Mammals

Fin Whale

Balaenoptera Physalus


Worldwide in tropical to polar latitudes


Open ocean (pelagic); rarely coastal

Feeding Habits

Filter feeder


Suborder Mysticeti (baleen whales), Family Balaenopteridae (rorquals)


Interestingly, though they are enormous, fin whales are not predatory. They filter feed for tiny krill or small pelagic fishes and are totally harmless to people (other than through accidental collisions). This life history strategy is common among several large animals in the ocean, including the whale shark, the basking shark, and the other great whales. Like all whales, fin whales are mammals and give live birth to very large calves (21 feet/6.5 m). Because the female is responsible for providing milk for its babies, she must store extra energy reserves and is consequentially larger than males. All of the record fin whales (by size) are females. The killer whale is the only species known to attack and eat fin whales (always juveniles).

Fin whales are known for the strange color pattern on their heads. Like many open ocean species, the back is dark while the underside is white. On the head, however, the coloration is asymmetric, with the right lower jaw being mostly white and the left lower jaw being mostly dark.

Fin whales have a truly global distribution and live in every ocean except the parts of the Arctic that remain covered with ice throughout most of the year (including summer). There are three distinct subspecies of fin whales (North Atlantic, North Pacific, and southern hemisphere), and individuals are known to undergo very long migrations between feeding grounds near the poles and calving grounds in the tropics. Their very large size may help fin whales (and other migrating animals) survive such long trips through waters that may provide relatively little food. Fin whales are thought to live for nearly 150 years.

Though they are surprisingly fast, fin whales were a favorite target of commercial whaling operations during the middle of the 20th century, and they were hunted into the 1980s. In fact, Iceland recently (2006) reestablished a commercial hunt of fin whales, so even today, the species is threatened by hunters. Experts continue to view them as endangered (highly vulnerable to extinction). In addition to newly reestablished hunts, a primary threat to fin whale recovery is accidental interactions with fishing gear and with ships, and scientists do not know the direction of their population trends. However, without continuing protection, this species, particularly the north Atlantic Ocean subspecies could be at an increasing risk of extinction.

Fun Facts About Fin Whales

1. Fin whales are the second largest whale species growing up to 85 feet (26 m) long and 160,000 pounds (72.3 metric tons).

2. Fin whales can live for 80 to 90 years.

3. Fin whales have accordion-like throats that help them gulp up to 4,000 pounds (1.8 metric tons) of food a day.

4. Fin whales are named for their prominent, hooked dorsal fins found near their tails.1

5. Fin whales are the fastest of all great whales capable of swimming up to 23 miles per hour (23 kmph).2

Engage Youth with Sailors for the Sea

Oceana joined forces with Sailors for the Sea, an ocean conservation organization dedicated to educating and engaging the world’s boating community. Sailors for the Sea developed the KELP (Kids Environmental Lesson Plans) program to create the next generation of ocean stewards. Click here or below to download hands-on marine science activities for kids.

Kids Environmental Lesson Plans

Additional Resources:

1 NOAA Fisheries

2 IUCN Red List