Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus)
The finback whale, also known as the fin whale or common whale (in French: roqual commun), is the second largest species of whale on the planet! Worldwide, they attain lengths of up to 26m (85ft), but in the northern hemisphere they are often slightly smaller at around 20-24m (65-79ft). At these large sizes, finback whales can weigh up to 85 metric tons. They are generally dark grey in colouration with a white underside, though they will sometimes appear brownish due to algae (diatoms) growing on their skin. A distinguishing characteristic for fin whales is their asymmetric colouration, with the lower right side of the jaws and baleen being white in colour while the left side remains a dark grey.
Finback whales feed on whale shrimp – called krill – as well as small fish like juvenile herring, capelin, and sand lance. They are baleen whales, meaning that they use specialized keratin plates to strain their food out of a mouthful of water much like we use strainers in the kitchen for washing vegetables or draining cooked pasta. The life expectancy of a finback is approximately 75-100 years. This species is often found either solitary or in small groups of 6-12 individuals. They are spotted by looking for a tall blow (25ft or more) on the horizon. Finback whales will often surface for one to two minutes before diving for a longer period of 8-12 minutes. This whale takes patience to watch, but seeing such a magnificent gentle giant in the wild is rewarding!
Off Pleasant Bay we observe them regularly in pairs or triads. While not the most common species seen in this area, they are not uncommon during the months of June and September. During July and August the chances of encountering finbacks varies from year to year depending on where their food source is found. Scientists use permanent scars, dorsal fins, and the light grey v-shaped chevron pattern found just behind their head to identify individuals. Finbacks encountered by our tours are documented by the Whitehead Lab researchers, with identification photos sent to scientists who manage the Gulf of St. Lawrence catalogue. This allows for us to track their movements across great distances. For example, one individual that we watched in July 2014 was spotted again off the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec a year later.
Finback whales are listed as a species of Special Concern in Canada and Endangered worldwide because they were heavily hunted, particularly in the 20th century. Commercial whaling of this species continues in Japan and Iceland despite being banned by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Ship strikes and underwater noise are thought to be the most significant threats to its recovery.