The great whales! The baleen whales are the largest animals to have ever lived on Earth. Bigger than any of the dinosaurs.
The Baleen whales are named from the long baleen plates that hang from their upper jaws like the teeth on a comb. Baleen is made from Keratin like our fingernails and hair and is strong and flexible. The plates are broad at the jaw and taper into a fringe forming a curtain inside the whale’s mouth. The whale is able to separate its food from the water by taking a large mouthful of water and then forcing it back out of its mouth through the baleen plates, which act like a sieve to catch the Krill or fish.
The Baleen whales are divided into four families: the Right Whales, Pygmy Right Whales, Grey Whales and the Rorqual Whales.
Gray Whales and Bowhead Whales are not found in the Southern Hemisphere.
A quick way to field identify a Baleen whale is that they have two blow holes and Baleen plates in their mouths.
The Baleen Whale Species of Oceania
The Rorqual Whales
The Rorqual Whales have a series of throat pleats running from their chins right back to their navel (except the Sei and Minke whales which have shorter length ones) that allow their mouths to expand massively when feeding.
Rorqual’s have slender, streamlined bodies with narrow elongated pectoral fins. They have a dorsal fin situated around two-thirds along their backs. They feed by gulping massive mouth fulls of water and prey. They then use their tongues to push the water back out of their mouths separating the food from the water with their Baleen plates. They feed on Krill and fish such as Herring and Sardines.
Pregnancies last up to twelve months so that mating and calving occur at the same time each year. Cows give birth to a single calf, which will stay with the mother for between six to twelve months depending on the species.
Pygmy Right Whales are the smallest of all the baleen whales. Their name is slightly misleading as they are in a separate family from the ‘right whales’ and it is thought that they have more in common with the Gray Whales and Rorquals than they do with the Bowhead and Right Whales. They are found deep in the Southern Ocean feeding on Krill etc. Due to their very remote location there is little is known about its population, social habits or behaviours.
Pygmy Right Whale
The Right Whales
The Right Whales are three species of large baleen whales of the genus Eubelaena. There are two in the northern hemisphere, the North Atlantic Right Whale, North Pacific Right Whale and one species in the southern hemisphere, the Southern Right Whale.
Bowhead Whales look very similar to the Right Whales but are in a different family and live only in Arctic and sub-arctic waters of the Northern Hemisphere.
Right whales are big, heavy rotund whales making them significantly heavier than other species of similar length. They have a distinct arching mouth, V shaped blows, very large stubby pectoral fins, broad backs without a dorsal fin and are very dark grey/black in colour. On their heads they have distinctive patches of white skin called Callosities. The shape and pattern of the callosities are unique to each animal allowing individuals to be identified.
Right whales are slow swimmers, curious and love to come into shallow waters such as bays and estuaries. They are also ‘fat’ with a much higher ratio of blubber than other whale species which means they float when dead. This meant they were the perfect or ‘right’ whale to catch, hence their name.
Right whales feed in a similar way as the Rorqual’s by taking large mouthfuls of water and prey which are then strained out of the water as the whale pushes the water out of its mouth with it tongue.