The Minke Whale or Lesser Rorqual is a marine mammal belonging to the suborder of baleen whales. The Minke Whale was first identified by Lacepede in 1804.
Most modern classifications split the Minke Whale into two species; the Common or Northern Minke Whale and the Antarctic or Southern Minke Whale. Taxonomists further categorize the Common Minke Whale into two or three subspecies; the North Atlantic Minke Whale, the North Pacific Minke Whale and Dwarf Minke Whale. All Minke Whales are part of the rorquals, the largest group of baleen whales, a family that includes the Humpback Whale, the Fin Whale, the Bryde’s Whale, the Sei Whale and the Blue Whale.
The Minke Whale is the second smallest of the baleen whales – only the Pygmy Right Whale is smaller. Male and female Minke Whales measure an average of 6.9 and 7.4 metres (22’8″ to 24′ 3″) in length. They reach sexual maturity at 6-8 years of age. Estimates of maximum length vary from 9.1m to 10.7m (28’10″ to 35’1″) for females and 8.8m to 9.8m (28’8″ 10″ to 32’5″) for males. Both sexes typically weigh 4-5 tonnes at maturity, and the maximum weight may be as much as 14 tonnes. The gestation period for Minke Whales is 10 months and babies measure 2.4 to 2.8 metres (7’10″ to 9’2″) at birth. The newborns nurse for five months.
Minke Whales are distinguished from other whales by a white band on each flipper. The body is usually black or dark-grey above and white underneath. Most of the length of the back, including dorsal fin and blowholes, appears at once when the whale surfaces to breathe. The whale then breathes 3-5 times at short intervals before ‘deep-diving’ for 2-20 minutes.. Minke Whales typically live for 30-50 years; in some cases they may live for up to 60 years.
Population and distribution
The total population of Minke Whales is estimated to be in the order of 184,000 in the Central and North East Atlantic. As of 2005, there are no agreed estimates for North Pacific or Southern Hemisphere. In the early 1990s the IWC Scientific Committee agreed that minkes in the Southern Hemisphere numbered 760,000, which the Japanese whaling industry uses as the current (2005) estimate. Minke Whales are widely distributed throughout the world, commonly found from the poles to the tropics but prefer the open sea.
In Western Norway, Minkes were trapped in bays and coves and killed with the help of bacteria infected arrows, a form of whaling that continued up until the 20th century.
By the end of the 1930s they were the target of coastal whaling from countries including Brazil, Canada, China, Greenland, Japan, Korea, Norway, and South Africa. Minke Whales were not then regularly hunted by the large-scale whaling operations in the Southern Ocean on account of their small size. However, by the early 1970s, following the over-hunting of larger whales such as the Sei, Fin, and Blue Whales, Minkes attracted the attention of these whalers too. Hunting continued until the general stoppage on whaling was introduced in 1986. According to a study by the International Whaling Commission, 116,568 Minke Whales were caught by whalers between 1904 and 2000. Around 100,000 of these were killed in the Southern Ocean.
On account of their relative abundance Minke Whales are often the focus of whale-watching cruises setting sail from the Isle of Mull in Scotland and HÃºsavÃk in Iceland. Minke Whales are frequently inquisitive and will indulge in ‘human-watching’. In contrast to the Humpback Whale, minkes do not raise their fluke out of the water when diving and are less likely to jump clear of the sea surface. This, combined with the fact that minkes can dive under water for as long as twenty minutes, has led some whale-watching enthusiasts to label them ‘stinky minkes’. The name may also be applied because it is frequently possible to smell the breath of a Minke Whale whilst observing it from a boat.