Minke Whales: Characteristics, Behavior, Species, Subspecies

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minke whale

Minke whales (Scientific name: Balaenoptera acutorostrata) are the smallest members of the roqual family of baleen whales (the smallest baleen whales are the very rare pygmy right whales, which really aren't even a right whales. There are also small dwarf minke whales, See Below for them). Also known as piked whales and pikeheads, minke whales were named in jest after a Norwegian novice whaling spotter named Meincke, who supposedly mistook minke whales for much larger blue whales. Meincke became minke. The pikehead name comes from whale’s pointy snout. The scientific names for minke whales translate to: "winged whale," (Balaenoptera) "sharp snout" (acutorostrata). [Source: Douglas Chadwick, National Geographic, April 2001, NOAA]

Minkes are the most common baleen whale. There are around a million of them, perhaps more, around same number, it is believed, that existed before the whaling era. One survey estimated there were between 1 million and 2 million minke whales, with at least 149,000 in the North Atlantic and 760,000 in the Antarctic. Ones found in the North Atlantic and the Antarctic maybe separate species or subspecies. A second form of minke whales called the dwarf minke has been found off Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. There is debate as to whether this is a subspecies of B. acutorostrata or a different species altogether. Dwarf minke whales are s eight meters (25 feet) long. Minke whales, dwarf minke whales and extremely rare pygmy right whales are the smallest baleen whales.

Minke whales are found in most of the world's oceans. They feed on plankton and fish. Blue whales, fin whales, and minke whales are known as gulpers. They gulp great mouthfuls of sea water and everything in it — their long furrowlike pleats on the throat and breast pouches expanding as they do. They use their tongues to push the water against their baleens, causing the water to go back out their mouths, swallowing the small animals left behind. Some whales feed on schools of small fish. The average of minke whales is estimated to be between 45 and 50 years.

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Fishbase fishbase.se; Encyclopedia of Life eol.org; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ocean.si.edu/ocean-life-ecosystems ; Monterey Bay Aquarium montereybayaquarium.org ; MarineBio marinebio.org/oceans/creatures

Minke Whale Habitat and Where They Are Found

minke whale

Minke whales have a worldwide distribution, They are found in all the oceans — Arctic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean and Southern Ocean — and some adjoining seas. They prefer cooler waters to tropical ones. Although not considered "coastal", these baleen whales rarely venture farther than 170 kilometers (105 miles) from land. Minke feed most often in cooler waters at higher latitudes. Their distribution is considered cosmopolitan because they can occur in polar, temperate, and tropical waters in most seas and areas worldwide. They also commonly enter estuaries, bays, fjords, and lagoons. They are also know to move farther into polar ice fields than other rorqual species. [Source: Bridget Fahey, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Minke whales, like some other species of cetaceans, migrate seasonally and can travel long distances. Some animals and stocks of this species have resident home ranges and are not highly migratory. The distribution of minke whales varies by age, reproductive status, and sex. Older mature males are commonly found in the polar regions in and near the ice edge — often in small social groups — during the summer feeding season. Mature females will also migrate farther into the higher latitudes, but generally remain in coastal waters. Immature animals are more solitary and usually stay in lower latitudes during the summer. Minke whales in Alaskan waters are migratory, but animals in the inland waters of California/Oregon/Washington are considered "residents" because they establish home ranges. [Source: NOAA]

Minke Whale Species and Subspecies

Most modern classifications split the minke whale into two species: 1) Common minke whale or northern minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata); and 2) Antarctic minke whale or southern minke whale (Balaenoptera bonaerensis). Taxonomists further categorize the common minke whale into two or three subspecies; A) the North Atlantic minke whale, B) the North Pacific minke whale and C) dwarf minke whale. All minke whales are part of the rorquals, a family that includes the humpback whale, the fin whale, the Bryde's whale, the sei whale and the blue whale. [Source: Wikipedia]

The taxonomy, or classification, of minke whales is complex because of the current recognition of two species: the northern or common minke whale and the Antarctic minke whale. The dwarf minke is currently considered a northern minke subspecies, but it could potentially be a third species (which has not received an official scientific name). There are also several other subspecies. The northern minke whale is divided into two distinct subspecies. The North Pacific (Balaenoptera acutorostrata scammoni) and the North Atlantic (Balaenoptera acutorostrata acutorostrata). [Source: NOAA]

common (Northern) minke whale range in white; Antarctic minke whale range in blue

Northern minke whales have a widespread distribution in the Northern Hemisphere and are found throughout the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Their range extends from the ice edge in the Arctic during the summer to near the equator during winter. In the southern Atlantic Ocean, Minke whales are usually found between 20° and 65° south. Immature individuals generally do not travel past 42° south. These whales migrate far distances seasonally, feeding in and around the ice edge during the summer and moving to mating/calving grounds during the winter (7° S to 35° south).

Dwarf minke whales are distributed close to the polar region in the Southern Hemisphere, especially during the summer months, but are more common in temperate and warmer waters of middle and lower latitudes. They are frequently reported in areas off of Australia (such as the Great Barrier Reef), South America and South Africa. The distribution of the Antarctic and dwarf minke species partially overlaps, mostly in the lower latitudes of the Antarctic minke's range (in the Southern Ocean). The Antarctic minke whale also has a similar distribution in the Southern Hemisphere and has been reported as far south as 78° south in the Ross Sea during the summer.

Minke Whale Physical Characteristics

Adult minke whales are 6.7 to 10.2 meters (22 to 34 feet) in length and weigh 4.5 to nine tonnes (5 to 10 US tons, 4,500 to 9,000 kilograms, 10,000 to 20,000 pounds. Females are slightly larger than males. The smallest baleen whale in North American waters, they are endothermic (use their metabolism to generate heat and regulate body temperature independent of the temperatures around them). [Source: Bridget Fahey, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

mink whale size

Minke whales are the sleekest of the baleen whales are are able to swim quite fast. They have a relatively small, dark, body and have a fairly tall, sickle-shaped dorsal fin located about two-thirds down their back. Their body is black to dark grayish-brownish, with a pale chevron or whitish band on the back behind the head and above the flippers, as well as a white underside. Calves are usually darker in coloration than adults. The head is pointed and bulle-tlike or pike-like, the source of the whale’s common names, with a relatively small rostrum. Baleen plates number around 300, are yellowish in color, and occasionally assymetrical in pattern. There are between 50-70 ventral grooves on the pouch below the mouth that expands when feeding. The tail extends into two long tips. The dorsal fin is high and curved back. /=[Source: NOAA]

Minke whales vary in body size, patterns, coloration, and baleen (long, flat keratin plates that hang from the whale’s mouth in place of teeth) based on geographical location, species and subspecies. They may vary individually as well. Northern minke whales are distinguished from other rorquals by their relatively small size and a well-defined white band located on the middle of their dark flippers. They have 230 to 360 short, white/cream colored baleen plates on each side of their mouth and 50 to 70 abdominal pleats are located along their throat.

Dwarf minke whales are a subspecies of the northern minke whale, but they are significantly smaller in size, growing up to lengths of about 26 feet and weighing up to 14,000 pounds. Their baleen plates have a thin black border. Dwarf minke whales can also be distinguished from other minke whales by a bright white patch on the upper part of their dark pectoral fin that extends up towards the shoulder and back area. They also have a dark half-collar that wraps around the head and reaches the throat grooves. [Source: NOAA]

Antarctic minke whales have 200 to 300 baleen plates on each side of their mouths. Their pectoral flippers are usually solid gray with a white leading edge, and the noticeable band seen in the northern and dwarf form is generally absent. Unlike other minke whales, the color of their baleen is asymmetrical, with fewer white baleen plates on the left side than on the right side of the forward part of their mouth. The rest of their baleen plates are dark gray. Antarctic minke whales also have 22 to 38 abdominal pleats located along their throat. [Source: NOAA]

Minke Whale Behavior, Sounds and Communications

Minke whale are motile (move around as opposed to being stationary), migratory (make seasonal movements between regions, such as between breeding and wintering grounds), solitary and social (associates with others of its species; forms social groups). They sense using touch and chemicals usually detected with smell.

Minke whales are usually sighted individually or in small groups of two to three, but loose groupings of up to 400 animals have been seen in feeding areas closer to the poles. The segregation and distribution of these Northern Hemisphere whales suggests a complex social and population structure, but less is known about the populations in the Southern Hemisphere. [Source: NOAA]

Minke whales are known to vocalize and create sounds that include clicks, grunts, pulse trains, ratchets, thumps, and recently discovered "boings." These distinct vocalizations can vary depending on species and geographic area. Minke whales are best known for making rapid grunts, growls and the strange “Star-Wars-like “boi-oi-ings” noises. For 15 years scientists and naval personnel could not explain the twangly, guitar-like sound they heard around the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. In the early 2000s it was determined the sound was produced by minke whales. It is theorized the sounds are produced by males to define territory, ward off male rivals or attract females.

Minke whales are curious animals. They approach ships and wharfs — atypical behavior for other whales They sometimes approach fishing vessels and get caught in nets. Jason Gedamke and Daniel Costa and the University of California, Santa Cruz have recorded the unique calls of dwarf minke whales to learn which individuals are making sounds and when. They told National Geographic: When a nearby minke calls you feel it in your chest. These minkes are incredibly curious. We stop the boat and they come to us. It’s a great opportunity to listen to their world.”

Minke Whale Swimming, Diving and Migrations

Mink whales as we said before are very sleek and the can swim fast at speeds of up to 56 kilometers per hour (30 knots, 35 mph),. Minke whales generally don't stay on the surface for long. They produce a spout that is so low and diffuse that is often easier to hear and smell than to see. Some say the minke whale’s breath smells like over-steamed broccoli.

Minke whales are often recognized in the field by surfacing snout-first, with a small and weak — but visible — bushy blow that is about 6.5 to 10 feet high. Unlike other rorqual species, they do not raise their flukes out of the water when they are diving. When surfacing, they have a quick fluid movement, which creates spray (sometimes described as a "roostertail") when traveling at high speeds. Before deep dives, they may arch and expose much of their back and body in a high roll above the surface. These whales can dive for at least 15 minutes but regularly submerge for 6 to 12 minutes at a time. Mink whales are also highly acrobatic, able to leap completely out of the water like dolphins. They are often active at the surface, and are commonly seen breaching. They frequently poke their heads above the surface (or, “spyhop”) in areas of mobile ice in the Arctic and Antarctic. At sea, these animals may be curious and approach vessels, especially those that are stationary. [Source: NOAA]

Some populations of minke whale are migratory. Other are more settled in one place. Both southern and northern populations often spend the winter in warmer waters, but this occur at different times times of year due to seasonal differences in northern and southern hemisphere. Minke whales that migrate generally migrate from high latitude feeding grounds to warm water breeding areas but the exact location of their breeding grounds are unknown. Most cruise the continental shelf. Those in southern hemisphere feed on Antarctic krill while those in northern hemisphere feed on cephalopods and hang around the edge of polar ice.

Minke Whale Food and Eating Behavior

stomach of a minke whale
Minke whales feeds primarily on krill and small fish. There are regional differences in the diet. In the Antarctic, they eat krill almost exclusively but elsewhere, particularly in the northern hemisphere, their diet is more varied.. There they eat squid and fish such as cod, herring, and sardines as well as krill, copepods and other shrimp-like crustaceans.[Source: Bridget Fahey, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Minke whales feed by side-lunging into schools of prey and gulping large amounts of water. Sea birds, attracted to the concentrated prey just below the surface, are sometimes associated with minke whale feeding and foraging. [Source: NOAA]

Minke whales opportunistically feed on crustaceans, plankton, and small schooling fish. Among the fish found in mink whale stomachs are anchovies, dogfish, capelin, coal fish, cod, eels, herring, mackerel, salmon, sand lance, saury, and wolfish.. In the Southern Hemisphere, the Antarctic species feeds on krill while the dwarf minke whales eat a combination of krill and lantern fish (myctophid fish).

Minke Whale Mating, Reproduction, Young and Development

Minke whales are viviparous, meaning they give birth to live young that developed in the body of the mother, and engage in seasonal breeding and year-round breeding. Females are thought to have young every year or other year.The breeding period lasts from December to May in the Atlantic and year round in the Pacific, with the average number of offspring being one. The gestation period ranges from 10 to 11 months. On average females and males reach sexual maturity at age six years. [Source: Bridget Fahey, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Minke whales become sexually mature at around 3 to 8 years of age (7 to 8 years for Antarctic minke whales), which is about when they reach seven meters (23 feet) in size. Mating and calving most likely occurs during the winter. Calves are about 2.5 to 3.5 meters (8 to 11.5 feet) in length and weigh 320 to 450 kilograms (700 to 1,000 pounds). Calves are weaned from nursing after 4 to 6 months. The reproductive interval for females is estimated at 14 months. Mother-calf pairs are usually sighted in the lower latitudes of the wintering grounds, but they are much rarer in the summer feeding grounds closer to the poles. [Source: NOAA]

The breeding period is long — from December to May in the Atlantic and year round in the Pacific. Peak months for births are December and June. Growth stops at about 18 years for females and 20 years for males. /=\

Minke Whales, Humans and Conservation

Minke whales are the most abundant rorqual in the world, and their population status is considered stable throughout almost their entire range (especially when compared to other species of large whales). The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List classifies them as a species of “Least Concern”. Minke whales in the United States are not endangered or threatened, but they are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) lists some some stocks them in Appendix I, which lists species that are the most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants, and Appendix II,which lists species not necessarily threatened with extinction now but may become so unless trade is closely controlled:

minke whale

The global population of all mink whale species and subspecies is estimated to be over 300,000. Commercial whaling practices may have reduced minke whale populations in the western North Pacific and the northeastern North Atlantic may have been reduced by as much as half. Commercial whaling’s overexploitation of other larger whale species, however, may have allowed minke whales to prosper from the lessened competition and increased availability of food resources.

The International Whaling Commission recognizes two stocks in the North Pacific as being of concern: the J-stock (East China Sea, Sea of Japan, and Yellow Sea) and the O-stock (Pacific waters and Sea of Okhotsk). Only a very small number of eastern North Pacific animals were taken for subsistence by Alaska Natives. Recently, the estimated population of minke whales has come into question, and it is possible that some stocks have been depleted because of modern whaling and hunting. [Source: NOAA]

Threats to Mink Whales

Threats to minke whales includes whaling, entanglement in fishing gear, ocean noise, habitat disturbance and vessel strikes. [Source: NOAA]

Entanglement in Fishing Gear: Minke whales get entangled in fishing gear, including groundfish trawls in Alaska, as well as drift and set gillnets off California/Oregon/Washington. They also become entangled in driftnets, gillnets, herring weirs, lobster traps, and tuna purse seine nets from numerous fisheries in waters of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic United States and Canada.

Ocean Noise: Underwater sounds and anthropogenic noise are an increasing concern for baleen whales, such as minke whales, which use low-frequency sounds to communicate with one another and to locate prey.

Vessel Strikes: Inadvertent vessel strikes can injure or kill minke whales. Minke whales are vulnerable to vessel strikes throughout their range, but the risk is much higher in some coastal areas with heavy ship traffic. The projected increase in vessel traffic arising from the opening of trans-polar shipping routes (as Arctic sea ice continues to decline) will increase the risk of vessel strikes, ambient noise, and pollution in the Arctic.

Hunting of Minke Whales by Humans

Minke whales have been hunted by people for products such as meat, oil, and baleen since at least the Middle Ages. They were never considered commercially importance until other whale species were overhunted. Annual harvests of minke whale whales in 1976 during they heyday of Soviet and Japanese whaling when 12,398 individuals were taken. Now human harvests are less than 1,000. These are taken primarily by indigenous peoples mainly in Greenland for food, or by Japanese and Norwegians for food and research. [Source: Bridget Fahey, Animal Diversity Web (ADW)]

Whalers have exploited minke whales since at least the 1930s. Hunters had previously overlooked them because of their relatively small size. Since commercial whalers started targeting minke whales, several thousand have been hunted in the Northern Hemisphere, and at least 100,000 have been killed in the Southern Hemisphere. In the past, these whales were commercially hunted by China, Iceland, Korea, Russia and Taiwan. [Source: NOAA]

Minke whales were never been considered particularly valuable by whalers and have never been threatened or endangered. The Vikings used to trap them in bays with nets and harpoon them with poison arrows. In the 19th and 20th centuries they were largely left alone until large whales became scarce. Today, minkes are hunted by the Norwegians with fast-killing grenade-tipped harpoons fired from a laser-sighted cannon. The harpoon imbeds itself two feet in whale's flesh and produces a blast that knock the whale dead with shock waves. The Japanese hunt them in the Antarctic with a mother ship and speedy vessels.

In the mid 2000s, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) allowed Japan to kill 440 minke whales a year in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary in Antarctica "for scientific purposes." Norway was allowed to take about 460 minke whales a year. The Japanese whale catch in the Antarctic Ocean in 2007-2008 was 551, all minke whales, well short of the target of 900 whales.

In Japan you can get whale burgers made with fried minke whale.. Japanese generally like minke whales less than other species because they are small and don't contain much fat, which is what the Japanese love. Meat from minke whales is the easiest to get today. Before the 1987 ban on whaling the Japanese didn't even hunt them.

Most of the "research whaling" by Japan in the Antarctic region involves minke whales,. Some was done near the North Pacific. The Japanese whaling fleet operating in the Antarctic consisted of the 8,044-ton Nisshin Maru mother ship and three or four other boats that weigh around 700 tons each. A single minke whale can produce around $100,000 in meat.Whalers who work on these ships make about $75,000 a year, three times the average for regular fishermen. After the commercial whaling ban was put in effect in 2019, the Nisshin Maru hunted for whales in waters off Japan. Ayukawahama in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture is Japan’s main whaling port. In 2009 and 2010, a fleet of five vessels caught 60 minke whales in Japanese waters off the northeastern coast of Japan within an 80-kilometer radius of Ayukawahama

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated May 2023

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