Dwarf minke whale: small statured but very charismatic

Name: Dwarf minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata)

Size: Length: 7-8m when mature (calf can be 2m at birth)

Diet: Baleen, filter-feeder, krill and small fish

Habitat/range: Coastal waters in Australia

Conservation status: Least Concern.

Superpower: They make sounds that have been likened to the laser gun (blaster) in the Star Wars movies.

Dwarfe minke whale
Dwarf minke whale. Credit: Holly Raudino

Their Latin name means ‘sharp-snouted’, but dwarf minke whales have a friendly disposition despite their long face. The Dwarf minke whale (an unnamed subspecies of the Common minke whale) is distinguished from the larger Common or Antarctic minke, not only because of their diminutive size, but because they have bright white pectoral flippers which give them the appearance of flying a couple of surrender flags. And in peace they do come, migrating to the balmy waters of Queensland in the austral winter for several months each year. Who can blame them? Heck, I want to join them!

Biologists remain baffled as to the reason the dwarf minkes aggregate in Queensland, curiously checking out boats and snorkellers. Not thought to be for feeding or calving, some speculate that it could be an important area and time for courtship and breeding behaviour. The mystery – and their predictability – adds to their allure and has resulted in a tourism industry centred around them. But while it’s great for people to have a close encounter, collisions with vessels and disturbance by people can put pressure on the dwarf minke population (whaling is another threat).

Voting for Australian Mammal of the Year 2023 is now open!

More information about the voting process can be found here.

A budding bio-acoustician thought he had landed in a science fiction film when he heard the Dwarf minke whales making their mechanical, metallic sounds for the first time. He wasn’t sure that the sound was biological, but three seasons and a PhD dissertation later, he proved to sceptical whale scientists around the world that it was indeed these little beauties bellowing boing sounds. At the same time this solved a long standing mystery for the Australian Navy who had been recording these sounds for 15 years without knowing the source.

Researchers differentiate most cetacean (dolphins and whales) individuals by unique markings on their dorsal fin and tail fluke, or in some cases the colouring of their entire bodies. Minke whales take this one step further with asymmetrical colouring on their bodies. That’s right, a blaze on their left side does not necessarily match that on their right side, although its peculiarly always paler. Their assortment of light grey patches, saddles, and blazes in more hues than 50 Shades of Grey makes them tricky to research, photograph, and count!

Their Great Barrier Reef bedroom antics might continue to intrigue and evade scientists, but their bold, curious, and charismatic nature is unquestionable. Go on vote for this small (for a whale) but mighty mammal!

Dwarf minke whale
Credit: Holly Raudino

The Ultramarine project – focussing on research and innovation in our marine environments – is supported by Minderoo Foundation.

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