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Fin-Whales, Or Rorquals.
Genus Balcenoptera.

Fin Whale Skeleton  Copyright Stan Klos

The remaining living representatives of the whalebone whales are known as fin-whales, or rorquals, or sometimes fin-backs or razor-backs, and include four well-defined species. These whales are distinguished from the humpback by their more elongated and slender form and proportionately smaller head, which measures from one-fifth to one-fourth the total length, and also by the comparative shortness of their flippers. The latter are narrow and pointed, and vary from one-seventh to one-eleventh of the total length. The small and recurved back-fin is placed about two-thirds of the distance from the head to the flukes, and the latter are smaller than in the humpback. The whalebone is short and coarse, and the lateral line of the mouth is consequently nearly straight, and does not rise above the level of the eye.

Fin-whales are the most common and widely distributed of all the larger Cetaceans, and are far more active and speedy in their movements than right whales ; and since their yield of blubber is relatively small, while the shortness and inferior quality of their whalebone renders it of much less value than that of the right-whales, they were formerly but little molested by whalers. The yearly increasing scarcity of the Greenland whale, and the enormous advance in the price of whalebone, coupled with the invention of harpoon-guns, which renders the capture of these animals far less difficult than in the old days, have, however, led to both humpbacks and finners being regularly hunted. Fin-whales are found in nearly all seas except those of the Antarctic regions, and the four well-defined species have an almost cosmopolitan distribution; but there is some evidence that the Indian seas possess two other species with a much more limited distribution.

Most of the fin-whales feed mainly on fish, the larger species consuming an enormous quantity of cod.

Lesser Fin Whale: The smallest representative of the group is the lesser fin-whale,

Fin-Whale. or rorqual (Balcenoptera rostrata), frequently known, from its pointed muzzle, as the pike-whale. It is represented in the accompanying figure. The average length of this species varies from 25 to 30 feet, and a length of 33 feet is but very seldom exceeded. The general colour of the upper-parts is greyish black, while the whole of the under surface, inclusive of the flukes, is white. The most distinctive characteristic of the species is, however, the broad band of white running across the upper part of the outer surface of the flippers, which forms a striking contrast to the black of the remainder. The flippers measure about oneeighth the entire length of the animal, and the number of pairs of ribs is eleven. The whalebone is nearly white.

This whale is by no means rare on the British coast; and an example was captured off the Stilly Islands so lately as 1887, while two were taken in the Firth of Forth in the year following. It is more common on the shores of Norway, where it is frequently captured in the bays and fjords; the natives stretching a net across the mouth, after one or more whales have entered, and then despatching them with spears. Its habits in North American waters, where it is known as the sharpnosed finner, are described by Captain Scammon. He writes that this whale " frequently gambols about vessels when under way, darting from one side to another beneath their bottoms. When coming to the surface, it makes a quick, faint spout, such as would be made by a suckling of one of the larger Cetaceans, which plainly accounts for whalemen taking it to be the young of more bulky speciea At sea the sharp-headed finners are seldom seen in pairs, but wander solitarily along, frequently changing their course in the depths below, and meandering along the whole continental coast of the North Pacific, occasionally visiting the large estuaries about the shore. They pass through Behring Sea and Strait into the Arctic Ocean where they appear to be as much at home as their superiors in size." The writer then goes on to say that, like the Pacific grey whale, " they thread the icy floes, and frequently emerge through the narrow fissures bolt upright, with their heads above the broken ice, to blow. When roaming about the inland waters of lower latitudes, they often shoot along the shallow waters of the bays in search of the myriads of small fry on which they mainly sustain themselves."

Eden's fin-whale (B. eden'i), from the Indian seas, is only known by skeletons, and appears to be closely allied to the present species, but attains somewhat larger dimensions, and is believed to have a few more vertebrae in the backbone.

Eudoipai's Fin- The next species in point of size is Rudolphi's fin-whale (B. wnaie. borealis), which attains a length of from 40 to 45, or occasionally as much as 52 feet. In color it is bluish-black above, with oblong white spots, while the under-parts are more or less white; the under-surface of the flukes, as well as both sides of the flippers are, however, colored like the back. The back-fin is smaller, and placed further back than in the lesser finner: while the flippers are very small, equaling only one-fourteenth of the total length. There are thirteen pairs of ribs ; and the whalebone is black.

This species is much rarer than the other rorquals, and does not appear to have been recorded from the Pacific. It ranges as far south as Biarritz, and migrates northward in summer as far as the North Cape ; and either this or a closely-allied species occurs in the seas around Java. Of specimens recorded from the British Islands, the first was stranded on the shores of the Firth of Forth in 1872 ; the second was caught in the river Crouch, in Essex, in 1883, a third in 1884 in the Humber, a fourth in the Thames at Tilbury in 1887, and a fifth in the Medway in 1888. On the coasts of Finmark the numbers of this whale are very variable, and while it is a constant summer visitor on the Western seas, it only occasionally resorts to these on the East. In 1885 the coasts of that country were visited by enormous numbers of this species, while the larger finners and humpbacks which usually resort there did not appear at all; and during that summer no less than 771 specimens were killed.

Fin Whale Beached  Copyright Stan Klos

Rudolphi's whale, according to the observations of Mr. Collett, differs from the other finners in feeding entirely on minute crustaceans, never touching fish; and, in accordance with this difference in its diet, the edges of its whalebone are more frayed out and curling than in the other species. On the Finmark coast these whales appear sometimes singly, but more generally in schools of varying size, which may occasionally include some fifty individuals. When migrating, or not engaged in feeding, they swim rapidly, and do not require to breathe so frequently as the other species. When they come up to blow, they make but one or two respirations, while the others take five or six. When swimming under water, their course can be traced by the bubbles of air continually rising to the surface; and when gorging on the swarms of crustaceans found in the northern seas these whales swim quite slowly, with the muzzle and half the back above water. Rudolphi's whale never appears to utter any sound ; and is timid and inoffensive in disposition. The occasional accidents that happen to boats engaged in the pursuit of this whale appear to be caused unintentionally during the death-throes of the animals. As a rule, but a single young is born at a time, but Mr. Collett records one instance of twins. The whalers of Finmark believe that this whale, like the two larger species of the genus, can remain under water when resting for upwards of eight or twelve hours; such periods of repose often occurring at particular hours of the day. Mr. Collett states that the yield of oil varies from fifteen to thirty barrels, and that the value of one of these whales ranges from £27 to £33, or about half that of the common fin-whale.

Common Fin - The common fin-whale, or rorqual (B. muculua) averages from Whale- 60 to 65 feet in length, and rarely exceeds 70 feet. It is very elongated in form, with moderately long jaws; the flippers measuring one-ninth of the total length. The colour of the upper-parts and the left side of the lower jaw is slaty grey; while the right side of the lower jaw and the under-parts, including the inferior surface of the flukes and flippers, are white. The whalebone is slate coloured at the ends, with the first two or three rows white.

The common rorqual is found rarely in the Mediterranean, but abundantly throughout the more northern seas of Europe, ranging as far as the 70th or 75th parallels of latitude. It is likewise widely distributed in American waters, where it is commonly known as the fin-back; and it appears that the so-called southern fin-whale of New Zealand is not specifically separable. It is not uncommon off the British coasts, two dead specimens having been found floating in the Channel in 1885, while another was stranded at Skegness in 1887.

The common fin-whale swims with great rapidity and strength, being second in this respect only to the next species; and is consequently taken with difficulty, except when explosive harpoons are used. Its habits appear to be generally very similar to those of the lesser fin-whale; and it is described as playing around vessels under way in the same manner. These whales are frequently found alone, but occasionally assemble in schools of from ten to fifteen or twenty individuals. When these animals come up to breathe, they inhale the air so rapidly as to produce a sharp sound which may be heard at a considerable distance, and is said to be perfectly distinguishable from that produced by any other species. When about to descend, Captain Scammon says that this finner " assumes a variety of positions, sometimes rolling over nearly on its side, at other times rounding, or perhaps heaving, its flukes out, and assuming nearly a perpendicular attitude. Frequently it remains on the surface, making a regular course and several uniform ' blows.' " 

The food of the species is mainly fish ; and the quantity of cod it consumes is enormous.

The gigantic Sibbald's fin-whale (B. sibbaldi) — the ' sulphurbottom ' of the American whalers — enjoys the distinction of being the largest of living animals. It is a somewhat stouter-built species than the last, and commonly attains a length of from 70 to 80 feet, and occasionally reaches 85 feet, or perhaps more. The general colour is dark bluish grey, with some white spots on the chest, the lower edges and under surface of the flippers being white. In American specimens at least, there is, however, a more or less marked yellowish tinge on the under surface of the body, which has given origin to the popular name. The flippers are longer than in either of the other species, measuring oneaeventh of the entire length ; and the jaws are also of more than usual proportionate size. The back -fin is small, and situated comparatively near the tail. The whalebone is black; and there are usually sixteen pairs of ribs, against fifteen in the preceding species.

This finner has a wide distribution, and in the northern hemisphere, after passing the winters in the open sea, migrates northwards in the spring towards the coasts for the purpose of breeding. In the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea, Sibbald's whale is represented by a closely-allied species or variety (B. indica), which attains a length of upwards of 90 feet, and is said to have a somewhat more slender lower jaw than the European form. Whether this whale be a distinct species, or, as is more probable, a local race, it differs somewhat in habits, as it has been observed in the warm Indian seas during the summer months when the true Sibbald's whale is visiting the cool shores of Norway. In the Pacific this species is to be found at all seasons on the coasts of California, thus tending to show that the Indian finner is not specifically distinct. Examples of Sibbald's whale have been taken in the Firth of Forth.

During the peiiod of their sojourn on the Norwegian coasts, these whales subsist exclusively on crustaceans, and when in pursuit of these small creatures they may frequently be seen swimming on their sides. At other times, however, they feed largely on sardines, sprats, and other fish. When near the shore, they may sometimes be seen playing around vessels at anchor, but as a rule they do not exhibit the same boldness as the common rorqual, although they will occasionally follow in a ship's wake for long distances. In one instance it is recorded that a whale of this species, in spite of having been repeatedly fired upon, pursued a vessel for upwards of twenty-four days. Sibbald's whale is considered to be the fastest of all the larger Cetaceans; it but seldom "breaches," yet when it does so, it exhibits its splendid proportions and its marvellous activity to the fullest degree. Captain Scammon writes that, " in contemplating this, the greatest whale of the ocean, one can but admire its prominent characteristics, which are its enormous, yet symmetrical proportions, and the muscular development which enables it to excel in velocity all its congeners, while its whole bearing indicates its superiority to all the other Cetaceans. It glides over the surface of the ocean, occasionally displaying its entire length. When it respires, the volume of its vaporous breath ascends to a height which reveals at once to the observer the presence of that leviathan of the deep, whose capture baffles the practical skill of the most experienced whalers. When ' rounding' to descend to the depths below,, it throws its ponderous flukes high above the waves, with a swoop that is well in keeping with its matchless strength and vigour." The invention of explosive harpoons propelled from powerful guns has now rendered the capture of Sibbald's whale a comparatively easy task, and it is regularly hunted from the factory at Hammerfest. A specimen measuring 85 feet in length yielded ninety barrels of oil.

Fossil The Pliocene deposits of Belgium and the eastern coast of Fin-Whales. England yield remains of several kinds of fin-whales, and likewise of a humpback, all of which appear to be more or less closely related to the various living species. Other whales from the Pliocene deposits of Europe constitute an extinct genus—Cetotherium—which, while evidently nearly allied to the rorquals, exhibits certain peculiar features in the structure of the skull whereby it departs less widely from the ordinary mammalian type. The Royal Natural History: Mammals, birds By Richard Lydekker - 1895 Edited by Stanley L. Klos 1999


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