Common and Latin names

The minke whale is named after a Norwegian Whaler "Miencke" who often harpooned  minke whales mistaking them for blue whales. The crew thereafter jokingly referred to these animals as “Meincke’s whales” and the name eventually caught on.

Minke whales are also known as little piked whales, pike heads, sharp-headed finner, lesser rorqual, sharp snouted whale, summer whale, bay whale and little finner. These names relate more to the shape of the whale’s head or fin or to its summer occurrence and distribution.

The Latin name Balaenoptera acutorostrata for minke whales correctly describes the physical features of this species with Balaenoptera relating to baleen whales with fins and acutorostrata referring to the sharp shape of its rostrum or snout.


The minke whale is the smallest member of the  family Balaenopteridae or rorqual whales, a family of whales that have baleen and many throat grooves which distend when feeding. 

This group also includes the blue (Balaenopteridae musculus), fin (Balaenoptera physalus), sei (Balaenoptera borealis), and Bryde's (Balaenoptera edeni) whales.  

Minke whales, like the other members of the Balaenopteridae have long slender bodies. The minke whale has a very distinctive narrow, pointed rostrum and a single prominent head ridge. The pectoral fins are slim and very pointed and the dorsal fin is sickle-shaped, positioned approximately two-thirds, towards the tail, along the body length. 

There are 50 to 70 throat grooves which end just before the navel and just behind the pectoral fins. 

The minke whale has 230-360 baleen plates, measuring about 20cm in length and 12cm in width at their base, positioned on each side of the upper jaw. 

Taxonomy - northern hemisphere minke whales

The taxonomy of the species is still in question but generally three subspecies are recognized.  In the Northern Hemisphere two subspecies are recognized, the North Atlantic form Balaenoptera acutorostrata acutorostrata and the North Pacific form Balaenoptera acutorostrata scammoni.  

These two forms are morphologically similar with adults reaching lengths of 511-826cm (mean 737cm) for the North Atlantic form and 480-914cm (mean 715cm) for the North Pacific form. However, they are distinguished mainly by their skull morphology with the North Atlantic form having a longer rostrum.

The colour patterns on the pectoral fins differ between the two forms - the North Pacific form has a white stripe on the fin which runs across the fin parallel to the body, but with a small central projection of white into the black of the fin. The fin in the North Atlantic form differs in that the white area is more angled and the projection has not been noted.

Taxonomy - southern hemisphere minke whales

Minke whales in the Southern Hemisphere are morphologically distinct from those in the Northern Hemisphere and a third subspecies Balaenoptera acutorostrata bonaerensis is described, based on its greater length of 710-930cm (mean 814cm) and the presence of a 5cm black border on the posterior baleen plates as opposed to the all creamy-white baleen found in the Northern Hemisphere minke whales. 

The pectoral fin of the Southern Hemisphere form is coloured various tones of grey and lacks the striking white band seen in the Northern Hemisphere forms. Significant differences in the skull morphology and biochemical differences have been demonstrated between the Northern and Southern Hemisphere forms.





Dwarf Minke whales 

The existence of a fourth form, the dwarf minke whale or the diminutive form has been described in the Southern Hemisphere. This dwarf form has all white baleen and has a vivid white blaze on its pectoral fins, with the white coloration extending onto the shoulder. This form appears to be born at a smaller size than other forms and attains sexual maturity at a smaller size. Size estimates have ranged from 4- 5m up to 8m. 

Dwarf minke whales have not been assigned a subspecies status and are still classified as Balaenoptera acutorostrata.




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