They’re as curious as a cat, as fast as a roadrunner and as loud as a jet plane. By whale standards, they’re reasonably small and have rather smelly breath—enough to earn the nickname “stinky minke.”
But beyond that stinky reputation is a whale that is as fascinating as it is mysterious…and one that is also wildly underrated.
Unveiling the mysterious, complex lives of minke (pronounced mink-ee) whales on our whale watching tours from Victoria is always an exciting opportunity. Simply put: we really don’t know all that much about them! But here are eight things we do know.
1. They’re small. Sort of
In terms of size, minke whales certainly aren’t breaking any records. In fact, they’re one of the smallest whales on the planet. Imagine a stretch limousine and you have a minke whale!
As with most baleen (filter-feeding) whales, females are larger, measuring an average of nine metres (30 ft.). While that might sound impressive, it’s nothing compared to the size of the minke’s behemoth cousin—the blue whale, which can top the charts at an astonishing 30 metres (100 feet) or more.
Though at first glance the size difference between these two species might seem obvious, this wasn’t the case when a Norwegian whaler named Meincke supposedly confused the two. Imagine confusing a limousine with a Boeing 737! Soon after, to mock the rookie’s mistake, all small whales identified by hunters were referred to as “Meincke’s whales.”
2. They’re a colourful 50 shades of grey
Highly regarded as having the most complex colouring of all baleen whales, minkes are an interesting blend of blacks, browns, greys and whites. In some cases, even shades of purple! So, if you believe that killer whales have a neat paint job, then let us introduce you to the minke!
Like their toothed predators, minke whales also have—and effectively use—countershading. That is, they have dark colouring on the top of their bodies and white markings below. This camouflage helps them blend into their environment and evade predators. It also allows them to sneak up on their unsuspecting fishy prey.
Another special feature of minke whales is a white band on their pectoral fins, a trademark that is specific to certain subspecies. While this white marking—affectionately dubbed a “mitten”—is found on all minkes we see in the Salish Sea, each and every whale is born with a unique, asymmetrical colour scheme.
It’s this remarkable variance in colour patterns that has helped researchers to identify and distinguish individual whales in an attempt to learn more about these fascinating creatures.
3. They’re living, breathing torpedoes
If you’re imagining a torpedo with a tail and two mittened flippers, then you wouldn’t be far off. With their streamlined bodies and powerful flukes, these whales are built for speed.
It’s this sleek torpedo shape that contributed to their scientific name, Balaenoptera acutorostrata, which translates to “winged whale, sharp snout.” That sharp snout allows them to cut through the water like a knife. The streamlined shape decreases drag, allowing them to reach speeds of nearly 40 kph, or 25 mph!
Speed like that must be used for something, right? You’re absolutely correct. Sustained high-speed swimming can help minkes evade predators like killer whales, which don’t have the stamina to swim that fast for very long. (We saw that for ourselves on one of our summer 2020 tours!) Being fast also allows for agile maneuvers to catch a myriad of prey.
Minke whales aren’t very picky eaters. They dine on a wide variety of schooling fish—including sandlance, herring, anchovy, cod and salmon, as well as small invertebrates such as copepods. They kick their powerful tails quickly and lunge through schools with their mouths open. Talk about a mouthful!
4. They’re Star Wars mimics
Any lightsaber-wielders out there? If so, the minke may just become your new favourite whale.
Few things can match the iconic sound of a lightsaber, but minkes are certainly a contender. They make a vast repertoire of sounds—from pig-like grunts to duck-like quacks.
Some populations lower or cease vocalizations in areas of high killer whale activity. For those that do vocalize, two of their sounds have become very famous. The first—known as the Star Wars vocalization—is made up of a triple beat followed by a long trailing note which, you guessed it, sounds like a lightsaber.
The second sound—dubbed the “boing”—puzzled researchers and submariners across the world for more than 50 years. This strange, loud call is thought to be used for communication but has created more questions than answers, which isn’t unusual for these enigmatic animals.
Whatever the reason for these strange yet fascinating sounds, it’s hard to ignore a whale that can produce sounds up to 152 decibels—as loud as a jet plane!
5. Some travel, some are homebodies
Speaking of oddities, here’s another mystery for the books. With a vast expanse of ocean and a body built for speed, you’d think that minkes would be one of the world’s best tourists. Wrong. While minkes are a cosmopolitan species—meaning they occupy all the world’s oceans from the Arctic to the tropics—the reality is a little more complicated.
If you’re a minke, where you hang out seems to depend on your gender. For example, plenty of older males can be found in the polar regions. Females seem to prefer northerly coastlines. Juveniles opt for warm, temperate waters.
But it’s still not that simple. Sightings data shows that while some minkes migrate seasonally over large distances year after year, others are more comfortable sticking to the one place they know best. This has left scientists baffled. Luckily for us in the Salish Sea, it seems the minke whales we see here are homebodies, faithfully returning every year to their favourite feeding grounds.
6. They’re reproductive superstars
When it comes to migrating, minke whales know the best time to seek out sunny skies and sandy beaches—in the middle of winter. And they don’t overstay their welcome, departing north before the spring thaw.
For female minkes, the annual journey to southern waters to calve is a fundamental part of life. Pregnancies last 10-11 months and, unlike most other baleen whales, minkes can produce a calf every year. This is exceedingly fast by whale standards. Humpback whales, for example, pop out babies at a more leisurely 2-3 year interval.
Minkes give birth to a single calf, which is weaned at an astounding 4-6 months—much faster than other baleen whales. With a lifespan of at least 50 years and records of an individual living to the age of 73, this yields a lot of baby-making potential. This certainly helps with population resilience. More on that later.
7. They’re hunted
Being overlooked and underrated was once a blessing in disguise for these little whales. Throughout the peak of the whaling era, minke whales were considered too fast and too small, and therefore not worth pursuing. For a while, they were the lucky ones.
That all changed when commercial whalers killed off most of the larger whales and turned to minkes. Since the 1930s, minkes have been increasingly targeted. Today, they remain one of a handful of whale species to be hunted annually by nations such as Norway, Iceland and Japan—in defiance of the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on commercial whaling.
Combined, these three rogue whaling nations slaughter almost 1,000 minkes a year. Unfortunately, most female mortalities include unborn calves.
8. They’re survivors
Despite whaling, entanglements in fishing gear and anthropogenic noise, the minke whale perseveres as one of the most abundant baleen whales on the planet. In other words, minke whale populations are generally considered stable and plentiful.
Perhaps luck has been on their side? Or perhaps being overlooked has its benefits? Either way, there’s no doubt that these long-lived, reproductively prolific whales are demonstrating nature’s ability to prevail.
When it comes to knowing the mysterious minke, we’ve only just scratched the surface. Join us on a tour and help us unravel the remaining mysteries of these beautiful, sleek whales. We still have much to learn.
To book a tour give us a call or book online!
Blog written by Brendon Bissonnette, marine naturalist with Eagle Wing Tours
Published Feb. 20, 2021