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A Fin Whale in the Salish Sea

In late summer of 2015, a fin whale arrived in the inland waters near San Juan Island. At first, naturalists were confused by what looked like a minke whale on steroids. The mystery whale was soon confirmed to be a fin whale, which are very rare to the area. Fin whales, the second largest whale on the planet, are endangered. Fin whales can be found in all over the world, and like humpbacks, they are migratory. The individual was seen mainly around Smith Island and McArthur Bank, but was also spotted off Salmon Bank. It was a younger animal that looked to be sickly and thin. Its dorsal fin had a notch along the trailing edge and its skin was covered in cookie cutter shark scars. Eventually, the whale disappeared.

On July 9th, 2016, Mark Malleson found another fin whale off of Jordan River, BC. This was a different individual than the one sighted in 2015. It was a healthy adult that did not have a nick along the trailing edge of its dorsal fin. On July 15th, we encountered the fin whale near Eastern Bank. He/she was being very cooperative and surfacing quite a bit in the same area for over an hour. There were several Humpback nearby, at least five, some close and some off in the distance. After a while a few of the humpbacks began lunge feeding, and the fin whale moved over closer to join them and also began lunge feeding. Like humpbacks, fin whales feed by filtering planktonic crustaceans (krill), fish and squid through their baleen plates.

The fin whale would lunge forward on its side with its mouth open, throat pleats and belly exposed, and its pectoral fin and flukes sticking out of the water. It would then roll back over, close its mouth, and push the water out through the baleen, trapping krill or small schooling fish (herring or sand lance) in its mouth. Fin whales have an asymmetrical color pattern on their head, especially noticeable on the lower jaw, which is white on the right side and dark on the left. When feeding, they often turn on their sides with the right side facing downward. Researchers speculate that in this position the lighter coloration of the head makes it less visible to the intended prey. At times, the fin whale and humpbacks were very close to each other and even traveled in a line together as they fed. The massive size of the fin whale was very impressive to see, as well as the towering mist from its exhales. They are second only to the blue whale, the largest animal to ever live on planet earth.

Although they are quite rare around here, there are an estimated 40,000 fin whales in the Northern hemisphere. Will this fin whale stay all summer long, or will its visit be short? Will it return next year? Will we see more fin whales in the future? Only time will tell.

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