Caught in only modest quantities for centuries, the minke whale was largely ignored by commercial whalers until the late 1960's, when the great baleen whales were all but wiped out.
Thousands of minke whales were taken annually until the global moratorium on whaling in 1986, after which Japan continued to hunt minkes for what they claim are scientific reasons. Current minke whale population estimates vary from over 700,000 to less than 300,000. Today they're hunted by Iceland, Norway and Japan, whose annual quota is now 935 whales.
What's a Minke Whale?
Minke whales are the smallest of the rorqual whales, as well as the most abundant. Being the smallest species, minke whales were among the last to be exploited by whalers after the larger animals had been severely depleted. Minke whales also move relatively quickly, swimming at more than 12 miles per hour, which makes them difficult to catch. This combined with their relatively small size and their status as a "species of last choice" has allowed minke whale population numbers to remain quite stable.
Northern minke whales can be distinguished from other rorquals by a well-defined white band located on the middle of their dark pectoral flippers. They have 230-360 short, white or cream colored baleen plates on each side of their mouths. They feed on krill, plankton or small schools of fish, either by side-lunging into schools of prey or by gulping large amounts of water.
Minke whales are usually sighted individually or in small groups of 2-3, though larger groups have been reported at higher latitudes. Minke whales are notoriously inquisitive and often approach stationary boats. They can be recognized by surfacing snout first and displaying a small and bushy blow that reaches between 6 to 10 feet in height. Minke whales do not display their flukes when diving, but they are active at the surface and can often been seen breaching (leaping out of the water) in a quick, fluid movement. They are also known for distinct vocalizations that include a diverse array of sounds such as clicks, grunts, thumps and even "ratchets" or "boings." These vocalizations vary depending on species and geographic area.