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Finback Whale Fact Sheet

Finback Whale
Balaenoptera physalus

New York Status: Endangered
Federal Status: Endangered


Drawing of Finback Whale

Second in size only to the blue whale, the finback reaches about 70 feet (21 m) in length and weighs up to 70 tons (64 metric tons). It shares with the blue whale the distinction of having the deepest voice on earth. The body is dark blue-gray above and whitish-yellow below, with a rather pointed head and a prominent back and dorsal fin which are easy to see. The asymmetrical coloration of the head is unique to the finback: on the left side the baleen (bony plates hanging from upper jaw - used to filter feed) and lips are dark, while on the right side the lower lip and the anterior third of the baleen are white or pale gray.

The finback often feeds by coursing through the water on its side, straining out krill and small fish through its baleen plates. Cruising at an average speed of 14 miles per hour (12 knots), the finback is one of the fastest of the large whales, capable of short bursts of speed up to 35 miles per hour. This species also makes some of the deepest dives of the baleen whales, and has remained submerged for as long as 50 minutes on a single breath. The "V" shaped spout can rise as high as 20 feet. Finbacks tend to be restless and easily spooked. They avoid noisy boats, but will swim up beside a stopped vessel.

Life History

In autumn, these whales migrate several thousand miles to equatorial waters. During winter, they fast almost completely, living off their fat reserves. Mating occurs throughout the winter and young are born a year later between December and April.

A calf, measuring 20 feet at birth, will nurse for about 7 months and reach sexual maturity at the age of 5-6 years. Reproductively active females bear only one calf every 2-3 years. The lifespan is unknown.

Distribution and Habitat

Finback whales live in all oceans of the world. They are found mostly offshore and tend to be very nomadic. High latitudes and cold currents are favorite areas because food availability there is high.


As with the other species of whales, finback populations have suffered from decades of hunting. The pre-hunting population has been estimated at 30,000-50,000 in the North Atlantic Ocean. In earlier years, finbacks were not especially easy to harvest because of their speed and the fact that they sink when killed. However, modern techniques have made this whale more accessible and they became the target as blue whale populations decreased. In 1977, the International Whaling Commission's working group on North Atlantic whales estimated only about 7,200 finback whales in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

Management and Research Needs

A small aboriginal take of finbacks is allowed in eastern Greenland and the International Whaling Commission has also set quotas for western Greenland and the Spain-Portugal-British Isles areas. Problems facing finbacks today include over-utilization for commercial, recreational, scientific or educational needs. As with sea turtles, whales are often sighted in Long Island waters and occasionally become stranded or wash up dead on beaches, mainly along the south shore. A stranding network operated on Long Island by the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation under contract to DEC serves to alert marine biologists to the possible rescue of live animals and the identification and autopsy of carcasses. The hotline number to report a stranding is (631)369-9829.

Additional References

Katona, S. K., V. Rough and D. T. Richardson. 1983. A field guide to the whales, porpoises and seals of the Gulf of Maine and eastern Canada. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. 255 pp.

Leatherwood, S., D. K. Caldwell and H. E. Winn. 1976. Whales, dolphins, and porpoises of the western North Atlantic a guide to their identification. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service NOAA Tech. Report NMFS CIRC-396, Seattle, Washington. 176 pp.

Leatherwood, S. and R. R. Reeves. 1983. The Sierra Club handbook of whales and dolphins. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco. 320 pp.

Drawing by Elane Eckert

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