Fin whale

  • Scientific name: Balaenoptera physalus
  • Length: Up to 26m
  • Marine mammal type: baleen
  • Family: Balaenopteridae
  • IUCN Conservation status: Vulnerable
  • Protected by: CITES


A pelagic baleen whale and the second largest animal ever (second only to the blue whale), adults can grow to more than 26 metres and live up to 90 years old. Having a silvery dark grey/brownish black upper body often with pale chevrons behind the blowholes, they have a proportionally small, sloping dorsal fin and a distinct ridge to their back showing down to the tail (hence also razorback whale). Pectoral fins are usually dark on the top and lighter underneath.

The best way to identify the species is from the asymmetrical colouration of their lower jaws and baleen; the right lower jaw and front right baleen is white to pale grey, while the left lower jaw and baleen is dark. Throat grooves number 56-100. Fin whales are born at 6-6.5 metres long, wean at 6-7 months and become sexually mature from 6 to 11 years. They feed on krill, small squid and fish such as mackerel, sprat and sand eel.

Where to see them

A large globally roaming species of whale. Fin whales are seen across the north Atlantic and do come fairly close to shore when prey species are abundant.

They can be difficult to formally identify when seen in the wild due to their size and shape being similar to blue and especially sei whales.


Sadly, it is not expected that a stranded fin whale will survive being stranded, as their sheer size makes them impossible to move safely except by the tide, and they will also be crushing themselves under their huge weight, causing severe internal damage that would make them unviable for refloatation in almost all cases.

What to do if you find a stranded animal?

A whale, dolphin or porpoise stranded on the beach is obviously not a usual phenomenon. These animals do not beach themselves under normal circumstances, and they will require assistance. Please DO NOT return them to the sea as they may need treatment and or a period of recovery before they are fit enough to swim strongly.

01825 765546 (24hr)
RSPCA hotline (England & Wales): 0300 1234 999
SSPCA hotline (Scotland): 03000 999 999

You will receive further advice over the phone, but important things you can do to help are:

  • Support the animal in an upright position and dig trenches under the pectoral fins.
  • Cover the animal with wet sheets or towels (even seaweed) and keep it moist by spraying or dousing with water.
  • Do NOT cover, or let any water pass down the blowhole (nostril), sited on top of the animal’s head. This will cause the animal great distress and could even kill it.
  • Every movement around a stranded animal should be quiet, calm and gentle. Excessive noise and disturbance will only stress it further.
  • Estimate the length of the animal and look for any distinguishing features that may give clues as to the species you are dealing with.
  • Look for signs of injury and count the number of breaths (opening of the blowhole) over a minute – this can give important clues as to how stressed the animal is.
  • Take great care when handling a dolphin, porpoise or whale; keep away from the tail, as it can inflict serious injuries – this is particularly the case with whales and it is advisable to leave handling larger whales until experienced help arrives. Avoid the animal’s breath, as it may carry some potentially nasty bacteria.
  • Provide information: Give the hotline an exact location for the animal – this can save valuable and perhaps critical time. If you have a mobile, give the number to the hotline.
  • Give an accurate description of the animal, including its breathing rate, and whether it is in surf, on rocks or sand, in the shade or in the full glare of the sun.
  • Information on weather conditions and sea state are also helpful.
  • The hotline should be informed of any attempts already made to push the animal back into the sea.
  • Maintain control.
  • Keep all contact, noise and disturbance to a minimum.
  • Under no circumstances, release the animal into the sea before the rescue team has arrived. It is fine to support a smaller dolphin or porpoise in the water, as long as the blowhole is kept above the water at all times, and as long as it is carried to the water carefully, e.g. in a tarpaulin (do NOT drag it or lift it by its fins or tail).
  • However, actually releasing the animal before it has received an assessment and first aid from experienced personnel can do more harm than good.

If you find a dead cetacean

The Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP) collects a wide range of data on each stranding found on UK shores. If you discover a dead animal, please contact the CSIP hotline and give a description of the following where possible:

  • Location and date found
  • Species and sex
  • Overall length
  • Condition of the animal
  • Your contact details should further information be needed

Digital images are extremely helpful to identify to species, as well as ascertaining whether the body may be suitable for post-mortem examination. 

CSIP has produced a useful leaflet that can be downloaded by clicking here.

CSIP hotline: 0800 6520333. Callers are given a number of options to ensure they reach the correct department. You can also use this number to contact BDMLR as there is an option for live animal strandings that transfers directly to us.