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Fin whales occur in all major oceans and seas, from the polar regions to the temperate zones, but rarely in the tropics. Therefore it is not surprising this is our first encounter with this species since we spent most of the previous 4.5 years in tropical waters.
Photo : Chris Johnson

September 28, 2004
'Greyhounds' of the Sea - The Fin Whale
Real Audio Report
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Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey in Italy.

We enjoyed spectacular weather conditions on our first research leg in the Ligurian Sea Sanctuary. The sky was clear and we could see the Odyssey reflected off the calm sea surface while hanging over the bowsprit.

The Ligurian Sea Sanctuary is a protected area covering 96,000 square kilometers. Declared a Marine Protected Area in November 1999, the sanctuary is the first in the Mediterranean Sea to include both coastal and pelagic habitats under the agreement of three governments - Italy, France and Monaco.

Eight species of cetacean frequent the waters of the sanctuary, including striped dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba), Risso's dolphins (Grampus griseus), bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), common dolphins (Delphius delphis), long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas), Cuvier's beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) and two species of large whale - sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) and fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus). The fin whales is the most abundant large whale in the Mediterranean Sea, and a species we have not sighted during the expedition so far.

Early in the afternoon we spotted a tall blow on the horizon, too tall and vertical to be a sperm whale. Sperm whale blows are low, bushy and angled to the left - this could only be a fin whale.

The crew crowded the bow and observation platform, directing Bob toward the animal. It continued to blow five more times before diving and we drifted toward the place we last saw it, waiting and hoping it would surface again nearby.

LatestPhoto
A feature that distinguishes fin whales from all other rorquals, and indeed all other cetaceans, is the asymmetrical pigmentation of the lower jaw. Most individuals also have a 'V' shaped gray chevron across the back and behind the head.
Photo : Chris Johnson

The fin whale is a rorqual, belonging to the family Balaenopteridae. The name rorqual is derived from the Norwegian word "furrow" and refers to the pleated grooves running from its chin to its navel. The throat grooves streamline the shape of the whale, while allowing the throat to expand tremendously and the whale to take in tons of food-laden water when feeding. The water is forced out through baleen plates leaving only fish or krill for swallowing. This efficient system enables the largest animals on earth to feed on some of the smallest and is a characteristic shared only by this group of whales.

The fin whale is an exceptionally long, slender whale, second in size only to the blue whale. Like other whales from the family Balaenopteridae,, fin whales have a streamlined body and a broad, flat V-shaped head with a well-developed ridge from the two blowholes towards the end of the rostrum.

The crew waited for the whale to return to the surface, scanning the sea for a blow. Fin whales usually surface after 8-12 minutes when feeding. When it finally surfaced, an explosive exhalation alerted the crew to the animal behind the Odyssey. At close range the fin whale is an impressive animal by any measure. While their size varies between regions and sexes, they can grow to a length of 26m (85ft) and weigh 80 tons but on the average are much smaller. A sexually dimorphic species, the females are 5-10% larger than the males, while both sexes tend to be larger in the Southern Hemisphere. Genetic isolation between the two hemispheres led to the recognition of two sub-species, Balaenoptera physalus inhabiting the north, and Balaenoptera quoyi in the south.

A feature that distinguishes fin whales from all other rorquals, and indeed all other cetaceans, is the asymmetrical pigmentation of the lower jaw. Black on the left and white on the right, the coloration even extends to the 260 - 480 baleen plates on either side of the mouth. Although the purpose is not satisfactorily explained, many scientists believe it may play a role in corralling food. Most individuals also have a 'V' shaped gray chevron across the back and behind the head.

Fin whales occur in all major oceans and seas, from the polar regions to the temperate zones, but rarely in the tropics. Therefore, it is not surprising this is our first encounter with this species since we spent most of the previous 4.5 years in tropical waters.

The fin whale traveled parallel to Odyssey and the crew could see the narrow, streamlined body beneath the surface. Chris had the best view from the crow's nest and yelled down to tell us the whale had turned toward us and was about to surface. The whale blew only 15 meters off our starboard bow, the flat pointed rostrum and blow holes appearing first, followed by the dorsal fin and a long, rolling, dark gray back. It disappeared without a fluke - this species rarely shows it's tail when diving, and we all assumed this was the last we would see of the animal for at least 10 minutes. Suddenly a shrill call from Chris - "She's under the bow" had us leaning over the railing as she surfaced one last time giving the crew a fantastic view, and then it was gone.

It is likely this animal was feeding. Fin whales in the Mediterranean feed primarily on krill (Meganyctiphane norvegica), which they capture by diving to depths of approximately 500 meters. Like other balaenopterids, the fin whale fasts in winter and feeds in summer when an adult consumes around one ton of fish or krill per day. Unlike whales in the open oceans that migrate between feeding and calving areas, fin whales in the Mediterranean Sea may constitute a resident population with extended feeding and breeding opportunities, unique to this semi-enclosed sea.

LatestPhoto
The fin whale is an exceptionally long, slender whale, second in size only to the blue whale. Like other whales from the family Balaenopteridae, fin whales have a streamlined body and a broad, flat V-shaped head.
Photo : Chris Johnson

Fin whales are among the fastest of the rorquals, capable of bursts of speed up to 25 knots they are often referred to as the greyhounds of the sea. A characteristic that initially spared them from being hunted early on as whalers could not catch them. Sadly, after the invention of steam powered catcher boats and explosive harpoons, this species gained the sorry distinction of having being hunted in larger numbers than any other whale during the 20th century, with over 750,000 killed in the southern hemisphere alone. Fortunately, protection measures prevented the fin whale from being reduced to the shockingly low levels of its predecessor, the blue whale.

Today, the fin whale is protected and listed under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as 'endangered' and is included on Appendix 1 of the Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). There are currently no worldwide estimates for the once huge, but now heavily depleted fin whale populations that like all cetaceans face a multitude of human induced threats, such as entanglements in fishing gear, man made noise, ship strikes, pollution and whaling.

Although provided protection by the International Whaling Commission's (IWC) whaling moratorium in 1986, four species of whales are currently hunted for supposed 'scientific' purposes - Minke whales, sperm whales, Sei whales and Bryde's whales. In 2003, Iceland announced a plan to add fin whales to the list. It is highly likely fin whales would be targeted for commercial whaling should it resume under a Revised Management Plan (RMP) of the IWC in the future.

Links:

  • Read more about an encounter with a rorqual in Papua New Guinea - the Sei whale
  • Dr. Roger Payne discusses - Why are blue whales so big and so loud? Learn more.
  • The latest Internation Whaling Commission meeting in Sorrento, Italy discussed the implimentation of a Revised Management Plan (RMP) - view the Odyssey log
  • What did the crew report on one year ago in Sri Lanka?
    Two years ago in the Seychelles?
    Three years ago in Australia?
    Four years ago crossing the Pacific Ocean -
      Real Video

Log written by Genevieve Johnson.

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