Great whales

Blue whale

photo of blue whale

Blue whales are the largest mammals, and possibly the largest animal of any kind to have lived on Earth. A 33-metre long, 190-tonne whale has been seen, but most are smaller than this.

Blues were hunted to the brink of extinction during the 20th Century, before being protected in the mid-1960s.

The most recent abundance estimate for the Southern Hemisphere is 2,300 and there is evidence they are increasing annually by about 7%.

There are no good estimates for numbers in other areas, but there is some evidence of a population increase in the North Atlantic.

illustration of blue whale
Conservation status
Endangeredstatus of blue whale
Length
25-26.2m
Weight
100-120 tonnes
Order
Cetacea (Dolphins, porpoises and whales)
Suborder
Mysticeti (Baleen whales)
Family
Balaenopteridae (Rorquals)
Species
Balaenoptera musculus
Range
map of blue whale
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Fin whale

photo of fin whale

The fin whale is the second-largest whale species after the blue, to which it is genetically close. Fin-blue whale hybrids are known.

There are no agreed estimates of current total population, although there are some signs of recovery in parts of the Southern Hemisphere where it has been protected since 1976.

There are about 40-50,000 in the North Atlantic.

Japan and Iceland have caught the fin again in recent years, with Iceland awarding itself quotas of 154 per year. Greenlandic aboriginal hunters target 10 per year

illustration of fin whale
Conservation status
Endangeredstatus of fin whale
Length
19-22.3m
Weight
45-75 tonnes
Order
Cetacea (Dolphins, porpoises and whales)
Suborder
Mysticeti (Baleen whales)
Family
Balaenopteridae (Rorquals)
Species
Balaenoptera physalus
Range
map of fin whale
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Right whale

photo of right whale

There are three recognised species of rights. By studying the genetics of parasitic whale "lice", scientists estimate the split ocurred 5-6 million years ago.

They are so called because they were the "right" whales to hunt - slow, swimming close to shore and would float when killed.

The right whale has been protected since the 1930s, although illegal Soviet whaling took large numbers in the North Pacific and Southern Hemisphere up to the 1970s.Two of the three species are on the brink of extinction.

Fewer than 400 are believed to exist in the North Atlantic, while the North Pacific species may be slightly more numerous. The Southern Hemisphere species numbers about 8,000 to 10,000.

illustration of right whale
Conservation status
North Atlantic right whale: Endangered, North Pacific right whale: Endangered, Southern right whale: Least concernstatus of right whale
Length
13.5-18m
Weight
40-80 tonnes
Order
Cetacea (Dolphins, porpoises and whales)
Suborder
Mysticeti (Baleen whales)
Family
Balaenidae (Bowhead and right whales)
Species
Eubalaena australis/glacialis/japonica
Range
map of right whale
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Sei whale

photo of sei whale

The fast-swimming sei whale was caught in great numbers in the Antarctic in the 1960s, after the blue, fin and humpback stocks had been overexploited.

Japan has issued a permit to take up to 100 sei whales in the North Pacific for research.

There are no agreed estimates of current numbers in the Antarctic. In 1989, the North Atlantic population was estimated at 10,500, and claims have been made for numbers ranging from 9,000-28,000 in the western North Pacific.

It has been protected since the late 1970s in the Antarctic and North Pacific, and since 1982 in the North Atlantic.

illustration of sei whale
Conservation status
Endangeredstatus of sei whale
Length
13.6-16m
Weight
20-25 tonnes
Order
Cetacea (Dolphins, porpoises and whales)
Suborder
Mysticeti (Baleen whales)
Family
Balaenopteridae (Rorquals)
Species
Balaenoptera borealis
Range
map of sei whale
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Sperm whale

photo of sperm whale

Made famous in Moby Dick, sperm whales have been hunted since the 17th Century.

It is the only "great whale" with teeth. Sperm whale oil once lit the lamps of the major cities of the US and Europe; and after WWII, 30,000 a year were being caught. They have been protected since 1982.

There are no agreed current estimates of number. Some authors believe the historical population worldwide may have been 1-2 million, and that there may now be 360,000-1 million.

Japan has issued a scientific permit to take up to 10 sperm whales in the North Pacific.

illustration of sperm whale
Conservation status
Vulnerablestatus of sperm whale
Length
11-15m
Weight
20-45 tonnes
Order
Cetacea (Dolphins, porpoises and whales)
Suborder
Odontoceti (Toothed whales)
Family
Physeteridae (Sperm whales)
Species
Physeter catodon
Range
map of sperm whale
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Bowhead whale

photo of bowhead whale

The bowhead is a single species - closely related to the right whale - and is remarkable for being the only baleen whale to spend all its time in Arctic waters. The bowhead's huge, bony skull allows it to break through the sea-ice.

There are thought to be more than 17,000 in existence. The bowhead is a target for indigenous hunters in Alaska, Chukotka and Greenland who are allowed to catch no more than 69 individuals a year under IWC rules.

illustration of bowhead whale
Conservation status
Least concernstatus of bowhead whale
Length
14-15m
Weight
50-60 tonnes
Order
Cetacea (Dolphins, porpoises and whales)
Suborder
Mysticeti (Baleen whales)
Family
Balaenidae (Bowhead and right whales)
Species
Balaena mysticetus
Range
map of bowhead whale
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Bryde's whale

photo of bryde whale

Bryde's whales are found mainly in tropical or subtropical seas. They were long confused with sei whales.

There are no agreed estimates, although there are thought to be about around 25,000 in the western North Pacific.

They were only exploited in any numbers towards the end of the commercial whaling period in the early 1980s just before the moratorium came into place.

Japan's scientific whaling programme will take up to 50 Bryde's whales a year in the western North Pacific.

illustration of bryde whale
Conservation status
Data deficientstatus of bryde whale
Length
13.7-14.5m
Weight
16-18.5 tonnes
Order
Cetacea (Dolphins, porpoises and whales)
Suborder
Mysticeti (Baleen whales)
Family
Balaenopteridae (Rorquals
Species
Balaenoptera edeni
Range
map of bryde whale
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Humpback whale

photo of humpback whale

One of the best known whales because of their distinctive flippers and tail flukes, their acrobatic "breaching", and for the singing males on the breeding grounds.

Once heavily exploited, the humpback has been protected since the mid-1960s and is increasing in many parts of the world.

There are probably now more than 30,000 in the Southern Hemisphere, 15,000 in the North Atlantic and 18,000 in the North Pacific.

Four whales per year can be taken by aboriginal subsistence hunters in St Vincent and the Grenadines, and an annual quota of nine was recently agreed for Greenland.

illustration of humpback whale
Conservation status
Least concernstatus of humpback whale
Length
12-14m
Weight
25-30 tonnes
Order
Cetacea (Dolphins, porpoises and whales)
Suborder
Mysticeti (Baleen whales)
Family
Balaenopteridae (Rorquals)
Species
Megaptera novaeangliae
Range
map of humpback whale
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Gray whale

photo of gray whale

There is a single species of gray whale split between two populations in the Pacific.

The western North Pacific gray is one of the most endangered in the world, numbering about 130.

The eastern Pacific gray, by contrast, has recovered to its pre-exploitation levels of about 20,000.

The eastern gray is famous for its epic migration which takes it from the cold Bering and Chukchi seas to the warm waters of Mexico to breed and calve a round trip of 20,000km.

No more than 140 eastern grays a year can be taken by US and Russian subsistence hunters.

illustration of gray whale
Conservation status
Western Pacific gray whale: Critically Endangered, Eastern Pacific gray whale: Least concernstatus of gray whale
Length
13-14.1m
Weight
14-35 tonnes
Order
Cetacea (Dolphins, porpoises and whales)
Suborder
Mysticeti (Baleen whales)
Family
Eschrichtiidae
Species
Eschrichtius robustus
Range
map of gray whale
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Minke whale

photo of minke whale

The two species of minke are the world's most hunted whales. Japan has been targeting about 950 a year for its research programmes, though its immediate plans are unclear.

Commercially, Norway issues quotas to hunt about 1,000 per year, while Icelandic boats catch up to 216 per year. Greenland's Inuit hunters can take up to 190 for subsistence purposes.

Estimates of minke numbers for the Southern Hemisphere are currently under scientific review, but there are probably more than 450,000.

There are more than 145,000 in the North Atlantic and about 25,000 in the western North Pacific.

illustration of minke whale
Conservation status
Common minke whale: Least concern, Antarctic minke whale: Data deficientstatus of minke whale
Length
8-10m
Weight
9 tonnes
Order
Cetacea (Dolphins, porpoises and whales)
Suborder
Mysticeti (Baleen whales)
Family
Balaenopteridae (Rorquals)
Species
Balaenoptera acutorostrata/bonaerensis
Range
map of minke whale
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