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Sei Whale (Balaenoptera borealis)

Status | Taxonomy | Species Description | Habitat | Distribution |
Population Trends | Threats | Conservation Efforts | Regulatory Overview |
Key Documents | More Info

  Sei Whale
Sei Whale
(Balaenoptera borealis)
Photo: NMFS Northeast
Fisheries Science Center


ESA Endangered - throughout its range
MMPA Depleted - throughout its range
CITES Appendix II - throughout its range

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Cetacea
Family: Balaenopteridae
Genus: Balaenoptera
Species: borealis

Species Description
Weight: up to 100,000 lbs (45,000 kg)
Length: up to 40-60 ft (12-18 m)
Appearance:  long, sleek body that is dark bluish-gray to black in color and pale underneath; similar to Bryde's whales
Lifespan: 50-70 years
Diet: plankton (like copepods and krill), small schooling fish, and cephalopods (like squid)
Behavior: usually observed singly or in small groups of 2-5 animals

Sei whales (pronounced "say" or "sigh") are members of the baleen whale family and are considered one of the "great whales" or rorquals. Two subspecies of sei whales are recognized, B. b. borealis in the Northern Hemisphere and B. B. schlegellii in the Southern Hemisphere.

These large animals can reach lengths of about 40-60 ft (12-18 m) and weigh 100,000 lbs (45,000 kg). Females may be slightly longer than males. Sei whales have a long, sleek body that is dark bluish-gray to black in color and pale underneath. The body is often covered in oval-shaped scars (probably caused from cookie-cutter shark and lamprey bites) and sometimes has subtle "mottling". This species has an erect "falcate", "dorsal" fin located far down (about two-thirds) the animals back. They often look similar in appearance to Bryde's whales, but can be distinguished by the presence of a single ridge located on the animal's "rostrum". Bryde's whales, unlike other rorquals, have three distinct prominent longitudinal ridges on their rostrum. Sei whales have 219-410 baleen plates that are dark in color with gray/white fine inner fringes in their enormous mouths. They also have 30-65 relatively short ventral pleats that extend from below the mouth to the naval area. The number of throat grooves and baleen plates may differ depending on geographic population.

When at the water's surface, sei whales can be sighted by a columnar or bushy blow that is about 10-13 feet (3-4 m) in height. The dorsal fin usually appears at the same time as the blowhole, when the animal surfaces to breathe. This species usually does not arch its back or raise its flukes when diving.

Sei whales are usually observed singly or in small groups of 2-5 animals, but are occasionally found in larger (30-50) loose aggregations. Sei whales are capable of diving 5-20 minutes to opportunistically feed on plankton (e.g., copepods and krill), small schooling fish, and cephalopods (e.g., squid) by both gulping and skimming. They prefer to feed at dawn and may exhibit unpredictable behavior while foraging and feeding on prey. Sometimes seabirds are associated with the feeding frenzies of these and other large whales.

Sei whales become sexually mature at 6-12 years of age when they reach about 45 ft (13 m) in length, and generally mate and give birth during the winter in lower latitudes. Females breed every 2-3 years, with a gestation period of 11-13 months. Females give birth to a single calf that is about 15 ft (4.6 m) long and weighs about 1,500 lbs (680 kg). Calves are usually nursed for 6-9 months before being weaned on the preferred feeding grounds. Sei whales have an estimated lifespan of 50-70 years.

Sei whales prefer subtropical to subpolar waters on the continental shelf edge and slope worldwide. They are usually observed in deeper waters of oceanic areas far from the coastline.

Sei Whale range map
Sei Whale Range Map
(click for larger view PDF)

Sei whales have a cosmopolitan distribution and occur in subtropical, temperate, and subpolar waters around the world. They prefer temperate waters in the mid-latitudes, and can be found in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. During the summer, they are commonly found in the Gulf of Maine, and on Georges Bank and Stellwagen Bank in the western North Atlantic. The entire distribution and movement patterns of this species is not well known. This species may unpredictably and randomly occur in a specific area, sometimes in large numbers. These events may occur suddenly and then not occur again for long periods of time. Populations of sei whales, like other rorquals, may seasonally migrate toward the lower latitudes during the winter and higher latitudes during the summer.

Population Trends
For management purposes, sei whales inhabiting U.S. waters have been divided into four stocks: the Hawaiian Stock, Eastern North Pacific Stock, Nova Scotia Stock, and Western North Atlantic Stock. The estimated population in the Hawaiian stock is 40-80 and in the eastern north Pacific is 35-55, but there are no current estimates for the stocks in Nova Scotia and the western North Atlantic. Scientists estimate that the current worldwide population is about 80,000 individuals. After commercial whaling exhausted all known populations of this species, sei whales in the North Atlantic and North Pacific are considered to be relatively abundant by scientists, but the population in the Southern Ocean remains greatly depleted.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, sei whales were targeted and greatly depleted by:

  • commercial hunting and whaling, with an estimated 300,000 animals killed for their meat and oil

Other threats that may affect sei whale populations are

  • ship strikes
  • interactions with fishing gear, such as traps/pots


Conservation Efforts
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN's) Red List of Threatened Species This link is an external site. considers this species to be "Endangered."

In December 2011, NMFS published a final recovery plan for the sei whale [pdf]. NMFS published a draft recovery plan [pdf] in July 2011.

Regulatory Overview
This species is protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 as amended.

Key Documents
(All documents are in PDF format.)

Title Federal Register Date
5-year Review   06/2012
Recovery Plan (Final)   12/2011
Draft Recovery Plan 76 FR 43985 07/2011
ESA Listing Rule 35 FR 18319 12/02/1970
Stock Assessment Reports n/a various

More Information


  • Reeves, R. R., P. A. Folkens, et al. (2002). Guide to Marine Mammals of the World. New York, Alfred A. Knopf. p. 226-229.
  • Shirihai, H. and B. Jarrett (2006). Whales, Dolphins and Other Marine Mammals of the World. Princeton, Princeton University Press. p. 56-58.

Updated: November 23, 2012

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