Caperea marginata

(Gray, 1846) - Pygmy right whale

Distinctive Characteristics

The pygmy right whale is the only right whale with a dorsal fin. The falcate fin is set about two-thirds of the way back from the snout tip. This species is atypical of right whales in other ways as well: it is rather slender, resembling more the streamlined rorquals than the chunky right whale and bowhead whale, and the head is not large (less than one-quarter of the body length). The pygmy right whale is like other right whales in that it has an arched jawline; also the upper jaw curves downward toward the tip, although not as much as in balaenids. The flippers are small and slender with rounded tips. There are 2 shallow throat creases, reminiscent of those in gray whales.

The colour of the body is dark grey above, ranging to white below. The flippers and flukes are dark grey.

The baleen plates in this species number about 213 to 230 in each side of the upper jaw. They are up to 68 cm long and are said to be very flexible and tough. The colour of the plates is yellowish white.

Can be confused with

This species can easily be confused with the minke whale, but the differences in head shape and the white flipper bands present in most populations of minke whales will allow differentiation when specimens are seen clearly. From a distance, the back and dorsal fin could be confused with those of a beaked whale however, beaked whales have very different head shapes.


The maximum recorded length for a male is 6.1 m and that for a female is 6.5 m. They reach weights of at least 3200 kg. At birth, pygmy right whales are about 2 m long.

Geographical Distribution

The pygmy right whale is known only from a few records in the Southern Hemisphere, between the Antarctic Convergence (about 60°S) and about 30°S, in both coastal and oceanic waters.

Biology and Behaviour

This is the least known of all the baleen whales. Groups of up to 8 individuals have been seen, but singles or pairs are most common. They are sometimes seen with other species of whales and dolphins.

The inconspicuous small blow and quick shallow surfacings of the pygmy right whale makes it difficult to spot and observe at sea. Sometimes, these animals bring their snout tips out of the water upon surfacing.

Very little is known about reproduction in this species, but the breeding season is thought to be protracted.

Pygmy right whales are known to feed on copepods.


The smallest species of baleen whale, the pygmy right whale is also the only one that has not been the target of large-scale commercial whaling. Some animals are incidentally captured in nets off South Africa.

IUCN Status

Insufficiently known.