Rorquals are the largest group of baleen whales, which comprise the family Balaenopteridae, containing ten extant species in three genera. They include the largest animal that has ever lived, the blue whale, which can reach 180 tonnes (200 short tons), and the fin whale, which reaches 120 tonnes (130 short tons); even the smallest of the group, the northern minke whale, reaches 9 tonnes (10 short tons).
Rorquals take their name from French rorqual, which derives from the Norwegian word røyrkval, (the first element røyr originated from the Old Norse name for this type of whale, reyðr, probably related to the Norse word for "red", and the second from the Norse word hvalr meaning "whale" in general). The family name Balaenopteridae is from the type genus, Balaenoptera.
Distribution is worldwide: the blue, fin, humpback, and the sei whales are found in all major oceans; the common (northern) and Antarctic (southern) minke whale species are found in all the oceans of their respective hemispheres; either of Bryde's whale and Eden's whale occur in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, being absent only from the cold waters of the Arctic and Antarctic; and the gray whale is found in the northern Pacific Ocean, although it was also found in the Atlantic Ocean in historic times. Rice's whale has the smallest distribution of rorquals and possibly baleen whales in general, being endemic to a small portion of the Gulf of Mexico west of the Florida peninsula and south of Alabama and the Florida panhandle, although it likely formerly had a much wider distribution in the Gulf.
Most rorquals are strictly oceanic: the exceptions are the gray whale, Bryde's whale, Eden's whale, and Rice's whale (which are usually found close to shore all year round) and the humpback whale (which is oceanic but passes close to shore when migrating). It is the largest and the smallest types — the blue whale and Antarctic minke whale — that occupy the coldest waters in the extreme south; the fin whale tends not to approach so close to the ice shelf; the sei whale tends to stay further north again. (In the northern hemisphere, where the continents distort weather patterns and ocean currents, these movements are less obvious, although still present.) Within each species, the largest individuals tend to approach the poles more closely, while the youngest and fittest ones tend to stay in warmer waters before leaving on their annual migration.
Most rorquals breed in tropical waters during the winter, then migrate back to the polar feeding grounds rich in plankton and krill for the short polar summer.