1. The ecology and status of fin whales Balaenoptera physalus in the Mediterranean Sea is reviewed. The species’ presence, morphology, distribution, movements, population structure, ecology and behaviour in this semi-enclosed marine region are summarized, and the review is complemented with original, previously unpublished data.
2. Although the total size of the fin whale population in the Mediterranean is unknown, an estimate for a portion of the western basin, where most of the whales are known to live, was approximately 3500 individuals. High whale densities, comparable to those found in rich oceanic habitats, were found in well-defined areas of high productivity. Most whales concentrate in the Ligurian-Corsican-Provençal Basin, where their presence is particularly noticeable during summer; however, neither their movement patterns throughout the region nor their seasonal cycle are clear.
3. Based on genetic studies, fin whales from the Mediterranean Sea are distinct from North Atlantic conspecifics, and may constitute a resident population, separate from those of the North Atlantic, despite the species’ historical presence in the Strait of Gibraltar. Fin whales are known to calve in the Mediterranean, with births peaking in November but occurring at lower rates throughout the year. They feed primarily on krill Meganyctiphanes norvegica which they capture by diving to depths in excess of 470 m. It is suggested that the extensive vertical migratory behaviour of its main prey may have influenced the social ecology of this population.
4. Known causes of mortality and threats, including collisions with vessels, entanglement in fishing gear, deliberate killing, disturbance, pollution and disease, are listed and discussed in view of the implementation of appropriate conservation measures to ensure the species’ survival in the region.