The North Atlantic right whale’s Latin name, Eubalaena glacialis, translates to “true whale of the ice.” The name is appropriate because whalers considered it the “right” whale to hunt because it moves slowly, floats when dead, and has long baleen and thick blubber, both of which were commodities sought by whalers. North Atlantic right whales have been protected from whalers since the 1930’s but have been slow to recover, making them one of the most endangered whale species.
The North Atlantic right whale is one of three species of right whales, which also includes the North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica) and the southern right whale (Eubalaena australis). The North Atlantic right whale inhabits the Atlantic Ocean from the waters off Nova Scotia, Canada to the southeastern U.S.
North Atlantic right whales are large whales, growing to lengths up to about 60 feet and weights of up to about 80 tons. They have a dark back, white markings on their belly, and wide, paddle-like flippers. Unlike most large whales, they lack a dorsal fin. Right whales are also easily recognizable by their v-shaped spout (the whale’s visible exhalation at the water surface), their curved jaw line and the rough “callosities” on their head.
The right whale’s callosities are roughened skin patches which commonly appear on the top of the whale’s head, and on its chin, jaw and above the eyes. The callosities are the same color as the whale’s skin but appear white or yellow due to the presence of thousands of tiny crustaceans called cyamids, or “whale lice.” Researchers use photo-identification techniques to catalog and study individual right whales, taking photos of these callosity patterns and using them to tell the whales apart.
Right whales are cetaceans that belong to the Suborder Mysticeti, the baleen whales. Mysticetes have hundreds of baleen plates hanging from their upper jaw that allow the whale to separate its prey from the ocean water.
Right whales have about 500 baleen plates, which are up to 7 feet long. They use these plates to skim-feed for planktonic organisms, primarily copepods, most of which are no more than a millimeter in length. They eat over 2,000 pounds of these organisms each day.
With only about 350 North Atlantic whales remaining, you might think that these animals would be fairly easy to track. However, the full distribution of this species remains a mystery. Most North Atlantic right whales spend the warmer months feeding in areas from Nova Scotia, Canada to Cape Cod, Massachusetts and migrate in colder months to areas off the southeastern U.S. (primarily Florida and Georgia), where they mate and give birth. However, according to whale surveys, not all of the cataloged whales are accounted for in each of these grounds, so there may be undiscovered feeding and breeding grounds.
Right whales are promiscuous, with courtship taking place throughout the year and one male often mating with multiple females. The whales often congregate in “surface active groups” of up to 40 whales, which involve a lot of thrashing and splashing. This behavior was initially thought to be related primarily to courtship and mating, but may also be socialization and play.
The right whale is pregnant for about a year before giving birth to a single calf about 15 feet long. The calf nurses for at least 9 months and stays with its mother for about a year. Right whales are thought to live at least 70 years.
Like other whale species, right whales make a variety of sounds. One sound often recorded by sound detection buoys is the “up-call,” which sounds like a “whoop” and is thought to be the sound of a whale letting others know it is nearby. They also make other sounds such as moans, screams (common in surface active groups), and a loud “gunshot” sound (produced only by males.)
Endangered, with an estimated 350-400 remaining.
In the past, right whales were threatened by whalers. They have been slow to recover from whaling, and human impacts are becoming increasingly dire to the species. Major threats to these whales today are collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear, and scientists and fishermen are working hard to learn more about this species and its behavior and enact protection measures before the species goes extinct.
- American Cetacean Society. 2004. Right Whale (Online - link no longer active) American Cetacean Society. Accessed November 6, 2008.
- Right Whale Listening Network. 2008. “What Does a Right Whale Sound Like?” (Online). Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Accessed November 6, 2008.
- NOAA Office of Protected Resources. 2008. ”North Atlantic Right Whales (Eubalaena glacialis)” (Online), NOAA. Accessed November 6, 2008.
- North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. 2008. ”Right Whale Facts” (Online), North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. Accessed November 6, 2008.