Antarctic minke whale (Balaenoptera bonaerensis)

GenusBalaenoptera (1)
SizeAverage male length: 8.5 m (2)
Average female length: 9 m (2)
Maximum length: 10.7 m (2)
Weightup to 10 tonnes (3)

Classified as Data Deficient (DD) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix I of CITES (4) and Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention) (5).

The Antarctic minke whale (Balaenoptera bonaerensis) is one of the smallest and most abundant of the rorqual whales, the largest group of baleen whales (6). This sleekly-shaped species has a distinctly pointed head and a sickle-shaped dorsal fin located two-thirds of the way down the body (7). The upperparts of the Antarctic minke whale are dark grey and its underbelly is white, with pale streaks on the side and pale flippers (6) (7).

Up until the 1990s only one species of minke whale was recognised, the common minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata). However, the Antarctic minke whale is now considered to be a separate species, and can be distinguished from the common minke whale by its slightly larger size and the absence of a distinct white patch on the flipper (8).

Found in all oceans of the southern hemisphere, the Antarctic minke whale may also range past the equator into the northern hemisphere (7) (9). During the summer, this species gathers in high densities in Antarctic waters to feed, whilst during the winter most Antarctic minke whales move north to more tropical or temperate waters to breed. Not all Antarctic minke whales migrate, and some may overwinter in the Antarctic (7) (10).

The Antarctic minke whale inhabits coastal and offshore waters (2). During the summer, this species occurs in high densities near the ice edge or amongst pack ice and in polynyas (1).

The Antarctic minke whale is usually found alone or in pairs, although aggregations of hundreds of whales can gather in feeding grounds (7) (11). This species’ diet consists mainly of krill (6), and it may in turn be preyed upon by orcas (Orcinus orca) (12).

The Antarctic minke whale reaches sexual maturity at 7 to 8 years old, and it has a lifespan of approximately 50 years (11). This species mates over the winter. The female undergoes a ten month gestation period, usually giving birth to a single calf, although twins and triplets may sometimes occur. The calf usually suckles for five months before being weaned, and will remain with the female for up to two years (9).

The Antarctic minke whale can swim at speeds of up to 20 kilometres per hour and can dive for up to 20 minutes at a time, although its dives usually last just a few minutes (9) (11). It is an inquisitive species, known to frequently approach boats (6).

Commercial and scientific whaling are major threats to the Antarctic minke whale, as it is now a primary target of the Japanese whaling industry, especially as larger whale species have been depleted by hunting (6).

Like all cetaceans, Antarctic minke whales are also vulnerable to chemical and noise pollution (13).

Climate change could also be a major threat to the Antarctic minke whale. With rising temperatures, a reduction of sea ice means that the Antarctic minke whale may lose between 5 and 30 percent of ice-associated habitat in the next 40 years. This is also likely to affect Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) abundance. As the area of suitable habitat reduces and prey populations decrease, there will be an increase in competition for space and food, ultimately decreasing the population of this whale (14).

The Antarctic minke whale is listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and so international trade in this species should be tightly controlled. However, Japan currently holds a reservation against this listing (1) (4). The commercial catch limit set by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) is zero, and the summer range of the Antarctic minke whale is protected by the IWC Southern Ocean Sanctuary, which prohibits catches in this area. However, these restrictions do not apply to scientific permits issued by the IWC (1). The Antarctic minke whale is also listed on Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), which aims to protect migratory species throughout their range (5).

Find out more about the Antarctic minke whale:

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  1. IUCN (August, 2011)
  2. Perrin, W.F. and Brownell R.L. (2002) Minke whales. In: Perrin, W.F., Würsig, B. and Thewissen, J.G.M. (Eds) Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Academic Press, London.
  3. Antarctic Connection: Wildlife of Antarctic - minke whale (March, 2011)
  4. CITES (August, 2011)
  5. Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (August, 2011)
  6. McGonigal, D. (2009) Antarctica: Secrets of the Southern Continent. Frances Lincoln Publishing, London.
  7. Jefferson, T.A., Webber, M.A. and Pitman, R.L. (2008) Marine Mammals of the World: A Comprehensive Guide to their Identification. Academic Press, London.
  8. Pastene, L.A., Goto, M., Kanda, N., Zerbini, A.N., Keren, D., Watanabe, K., Bessho, Y., Hasegawa, M., Nielsen, R., Larsen, F. and Palsbøll, P.J. (2007) Radiation and speciation of pelagic organisms during periods of global warming: The case of the common minke whale, Balaenoptera acutorostrata. Molecular Ecology, 16: 1481-1495.
  9. Australian Government: Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities - Antarctic minke whale (August, 2011)  
  10. Glover, K.A., Kanda, N., Haug, T., Pastene, L.A., Oien, N., Goto, M., Seliussen, B.B. and Skaug, H.J. (2010) Migration of Antarctic minke whales to the Arctic. PLoS One. 5(12): 1-6.
  11. Society for Marine Mammalogy - Antarctic minke whale (March, 2011)
  12. Pitman, R.L. and Ensor, P. (2003) Three forms of killer whales (Orchinus orcha) in Antarctic waters. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management, 5(2): 131-139.
  13. Alter, S.E., Simmonds, M.P. and Brandon, J.R. (2010) Forecasting the consequences of climate-driven shifts in human behaviour on cetaceans. Marine Policy. 34(5): 943-954.
  14. Elliott, W., Tin, T., Tynan, C., Russel, J., Casavelos, J., Ainley, D., Simmonds, M., Sohl, H. and Sutton, A. (2008) Ice Breaker: Pushing the Boundaries for Whales. WWF International, Switzerland. Available at: