Right whales are large baleen whales that grow to about 60 feet in length and 80 tons in weight. They are easily-recognized by their stout, dark bodies, lack of a dorsal fin, bow-shaped mouth and the callosities on their heads. Right whales got their name from whalers, who considered them the "right" whale to hunt because they are slow-swimming animals that are easier to capture than faster whale species, and their massive amounts of blubber and long baleen made them profitable. Here you can learn about the 3 right whale species - the North Atlantic right whale, North Pacific right whale and the southern right whale.
North Atlantic right whales are found off the east coast of the U.S. and Canada from feeding grounds off Canada and New England to breeding grounds off South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
The North Atlantic right whale population is thought to number about 400-500 individuals, and while it is low, this population has been climbing ever-so-slowly over the past 10 years.
Current threats to this species include ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. Ship speed restrictions, movement of shipping lanes and fishing gear modifications are ways that scientists, fishermen and members of the shipping industry have been working to protect this species from extinction.
Up until about the year 2000, the North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica) and the North Atlantic right whale were considered the same species. In 2008, they were listed as separate species under the Endangered Species Act.
There are two North Pacific right whale populations - a western population found in the Sea of Okhotsk off Russia, which is thought to number in the hundreds, and an eastern population that lives in the Bering Sea off Alaska, which numbers about 30. These populations are so low due to whaling, including heavy whaling from the 1500's to 1800's, and illegal Soviet whaling in the 1960's. Current threats include ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, pollution, habitat degradation and climate change.
Southern right whales are found off South Africa, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. They have the interesting habit of "sailing" in strong winds by lifting their huge tail flukes above the water surface and moving along with the wind.
This species has been protected from whaling since 1931, and their population was estimated at 7,000 in 2001. They are considered a species of least concern by the IUCN Red List, as populations have recovered much more strongly than those of their northern counterparts. While they are threatened by entanglements and ship strikes like other right whales, southern right whales live in areas that are less densely populated by humans, thus they are subject to less fishing and shipping activity.