Minke whales (pronounced mink-ee) are members of the baleen whale family, a group of large whales named for the unique plates of baleen that hang from their jaws and act as a strainer while they feed. Despite their large size, minke whales are actually the smallest members of the “great whale” family. Their common name comes from a Norwegian seaman named Meincke, who was said to have mistaken a minke whale for a much larger blue whale.
“Minke whale” refers to two existing species: the northern, or common, minke whale and the Antarctic minke whale. Aside from the differences in their range, the northern minke whale has a white band on its fin that the Antarctic minke whale does not. Minke whales reach lengths of up to 35 feet long and weigh up to 2,000 pounds, and female minkes tend to be larger than their male counterparts.
Minke whales are the most common of the great whale species, and can be found throughout the world's oceans. Factors like age, maturity and sex dictate exactly where individuals will live. Older mature males tend to gravitate towards polar waters, where they’ll gather in groups of two or three. Mature females also migrate to colder waters, but swim closer to coastlines. Young minke whales are solitary and generally live in warmer, more central waters. Some groups of minke whales undertake large migrations, while others will stay in a smaller home range, though scientists aren’t sure why.
Minke whales are filter feeders, similar to right whales and humpback whales. Hairs on their baleen plates — Antarctic minke whales may have 200-300 plates on each side of their mouths — catch small fish or plankton, while the saltwater strains through to go back into the ocean. (NOAA) Unlike their relatives, minke whales are opportunistic eaters. They will usually feed on krill and small fish, but if those aren’t available they’ll hunt larger fish like haddock or cod.
Not much is known about the minke whale’s reproductive behavior. In northern oceans they may breed throughout the year, but birthing rates peak during the winter. Minke whales in other ocean regions may only breed during the winter. Minke whales gestate for 10 to 11 months and give birth to live young. Minke whale mothers will nurse their calves for four to six months before the calf switches to solid food.
The minke whale continues to be hunted in nations such as Iceland, Norway and Japan. Minke whales are listed as a species of least concern by the IUCN Red List in part due to a lack of data. Some of their populations have experienced declining numbers, but not enough to indicate that they are in danger of extinction.