Types of Baleen Whales

They include humpbacks, minkes and blue whales

There are currently 86 recognized species of whales, dolphins and porpoises. Of these, 14 are Mysticetes, or baleen whales. These whales have baleen plates in their upper jaws, rather than teeth. The plates allow a whale to feed on large quantities of prey at once while filtering out sea water.

Here's a list of the known varieties of baleen whales, many of which you may already know by other names.

Blue Whale feeding near shore, New Zealand
Kim Westerskov/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Blue whales are thought to be the largest animal ever to live on the Earth. They grow 100 feet long and can weigh almost 200 tons. Their skin is a beautiful gray-blue color, often with a mottling of light spots. This pigmentation allows researchers to tell individual blue whales apart, as the patterns vary from whale to whale. 

Blue whales also make some of the loudest sounds in the animal kingdom. These low-frequency sounds travel a long way underwater. Some scientists have speculated that if there were no interference, a blue whale's sound could travel from the North Pole to the South Pole.

Fin Whale - Balaenoptera physalus

Fin whale emerging from water
Cultura/George Karbus Photography / Getty Images

The fin whale is the second-largest animal in the world, with a mass greater even than any dinosaur. Despite their size, these are fast, streamlined whales that sailors nicknamed "the greyhounds of the sea". Fin whales have a unique asymmetrical coloration: a white patch on the lower jaw on the right side which is absent on the whale's left side.

Sei Whale - Balaenoptera borealis

Sei (pronounced "say") whales are another of the fastest whale species. They are streamlined animals with dark backs and white undersides and curved dorsal fins. Their name comes from the Norwegian word for pollock — seje — because sei whales and pollock often appeared off the coast of Norway at the same time.

Bryde's Whale - Balaenoptera edeni

Bryde's whale in gulf of Thailand
Photo by Vichan Sriseangnil / Getty Images

The Bryde's (pronounced "broodus") whale is named for Johan Bryde, who built the first whaling stations in South Africa. Bryde's whales look similar to sei whales, except they have three ridges on their heads where a sei whale has one.

Bryde's whales are 40 to 55 feet long and weigh up to 45 tons. The scientific name for the Bryde's whale is Balaenoptera edeni, but there is increasing evidence that shows there may actually be two Bryde's whale species: a coastal species that would be known as Balaenoptera edeni and an offshore form known as Balaenoptera brydei.

The Omura's whale is a fairly new species, first designated in 2003. Until then, it was thought to be a smaller form of the Bryde's whale, but more recent genetic evidence supported classification of this whale as a separate species.

Although the exact range of Omura's whale is unknown, limited sightings have confirmed that it lives in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, including Southern Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines and the Solomon Sea. Its appearance is similar to a sei whale in that it has one ridge on its head, and is also thought to have asymmetrical coloration on its head, similar to the fin whale.

Humpback Whale - Megaptera novaeangliae

Humpback whale swimming Underwater, Tonga, South Pacific
seanscott / Getty Images

Humpback whales are a medium-sized baleen whale, about 40 to 50 feet long and between 20 and 30 tons. They have very distinctive long, wing-like pectoral fins that are about 15 feet long.

Humpbacks undertake long migrations each season between high latitude feeding grounds and low latitude breeding grounds, often fasting for weeks or months during the winter breeding season.

Gray Whale - Eschrichtius robustus

Gray whale breach
Myer Bornstein - Photo Bee 1 / Getty Images

Gray whales are about 45 feet long and can weigh up to 40 tons. They have a mottled coloration with a gray background and light spots and patches.

There are now two gray whale populations - the California gray whale which is found from breeding grounds off Baja California, Mexico to feeding grounds off Alaska, and a small population off the coast of eastern Asia, known as the Western North Pacific or Korean gray whale stock.

At one time there was a population of gray whales in the North Atlantic Ocean, but it is now extinct.

Common Minke Whale - Balaenoptera acutorostrata

Minke whales are small as whales go, but are still about 20 to 30 feet long.

The common minke whale has been divided into 3 subspecies - the North Atlantic minke whale ( Balaenoptera acutorostrata acutorostrata), the North Pacific minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata scammoni), and the dwarf minke whale (whose scientific name has not yet been determined).

They are widely distributed, with North Pacific and North Atlantic minkes found in the northern hemisphere while the dwarf minke whale's distribution is similar to the Antarctic minke described below.

Antarctic Minke Whale - Balaenoptera bonaerensis

Minke Whale Swimming in Ocean
ekvals / Getty Images

The Antarctic minke whale (Balaenoptera bonaerensis) was proposed for recognition as a species separate from the common minke whale in the late 1990s.

This minke whale is slightly larger than its more northern relatives and has gray pectoral fins, rather than the gray fins with white pectoral fin patches seen on the common minke whale.

Antarctic minke whales, as their name suggests are typically found off Antarctica in the summer and closer to the equator (e.g., around South America, Africa, and Australia) in the winter. 

Bowhead Whale Balaena mysticetus
Tim Melling / Getty Images

The bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) got its name from its bow-shaped jaw. They are 45 to 60 feet long and can weigh up to 100 tons. The bowhead's blubber layer is over 1 1/2 feet thick, which provides insulation from the cold Arctic waters in which they live.

Bowheads are still hunted by native whalers in the Arctic under International Whaling Commission permits for aboriginal subsistence whaling.

North Atlantic Right Whale - Eubalaena glacialis

The North Atlantic right whale got its name from whalers, who thought it was the "right" whale to hunt. These whales grow to about 60 feet in length and 80 tons in weight. They can be identified by the rough patches of skin, or callosities, on their heads.

North Atlantic right whales spend their summer feeding season in cold, northern latitudes off Canada and New England and spend their winter breeding season off the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.​

North Pacific Right Whale - Eubalaena japonica

Up until about the year 2000, the North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica) was considered the same species as the North Atlantic right whale, but since then, has been treated as a separate species.

Due to heavy whale hunting from the 1500s up through the 1800s, the population of this species has been reduced to a small fraction of its former size, with some estimates listing as few as 500 remaining.

Southern Right Whale - Eubalaena australis

Close up view of a curious southern right whale calf with it's mother in the background, Puerto Piramides, Argentina.
by wildestanimal / Getty Images

Like its northern counterpart, the southern right whale is a large, bulky-looking whale that reaches lengths of up to 55 feet and can weigh up to 60 tons.

This whale has the interesting habit of "sailing" in strong winds by lifting its huge tail flukes above the water surface. Like many other large whale species, the southern right whale migrates between warmer, low-latitude breeding grounds and colder, high-latitude feeding grounds.

Their breeding grounds are fairly distinct and include South Africa, Argentina, Australia, and parts of New Zealand.

Pygmy Right Whale - Caperea marginata

The pygmy right whale (Caperea marginata) is the smallest, and probably the least well-known baleen whale species. It has a curved mouth like other right whales and is thought to feed on copepods and krill. These whales are about 20 feet long and weigh about 5 tons.

They live in temperate waters of the Southern Hemisphere. This species is listed as "data deficient" on the IUCN Red List, which states that they may be "naturally rare... simply difficult to detect or identify, or perhaps its areas of concentration have not yet been discovered."