Right Whale Fact Sheet
North Atlantic Right Whale
New York Status: Endangered
Federal Status: Endangered
Slow swimming speed, a gentle nature, a body which is 40% blubber by weight (causing it to float when dead), and its propensity to stay mainly in shallow coastal waters were some of the reasons why 19th century whalers considered this the "right" whale to hunt, hence its name.
Right whales are quite rare to see and are physically very different from other species of whale. Characterized by the absence of a dorsal fin, a very large head, and a strongly arching mouth, this whale reaches about 50 feet (15 m) in length and weighs up to 70 tons (64 metric tons). Another characteristic trait is the light colored, wart-like growths on the head called "callosities." The number, distribution, and size of the callosities varies among individuals, and they are often used for identification. The body is dark to light gray, appearing mottled, with whitish underparts. Right whales strain plankton with baleen plates which may reach 7 feet in length. Because the two blowholes are widely separated, the spout is seen as two distinct sprays. A curious habit of this species is to "sail" by holding its flukes above the water and allowing the wind to push it along.
Right whales reach sexual maturity between 3-5 years of age. Courtship takes place in August and September. During the winter months, a small part of the population consisting of adult females and young calves migrates to a well-known calving ground in the shallow waters between Savannah, Georgia and Cape Canaveral, Florida. Calving peaks between December and March, after an unknown gestation period. Calves average 15 feet in length and will nurse for at least 9 months. Reproductively active females give birth to only one calf every 3-5 years. The life span and duration of reproductive activity for this species are unknown.
Distribution and Habitat
Right whales are found in the North Atlantic and North Pacific oceans. Five North Atlantic "high-use" areas have been identified: coastal Florida and Georgia; the Great South Channel east of Cape Cod, Massachusetts; Cape Cod Bay and Massachusetts Bay; the Bay of Fundy; and Browns and Baccaro Banks south of Nova Scotia. The majority of the population spends spring and summer off the coast of New England, and moves to waters off southern Canada for the latter part of summer and winter.
Other members of the population migrate to calving areas as explained above. The diet consists of copepods and krill which are obtained by feeding below the surface.
The right whale is the world's most endangered large whale. Presently, the population is estimated to total no more than 600 individuals, 300-350 of which can be found in the North Atlantic Ocean. The population was originally decimated by hunting which began 800 years ago. By the 18th century, this was one of the Northeast's rarest animals. Protection since 1937 by the International Whaling Commission has not lead to any significant recovery. Major threats presently include collision with ships, entrapment or entanglement in fishing gear, habitat degradation (especially in feeding areas), and disturbance by vessels.
Management and Research Needs
A stranding network operated on Long Island by the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation under contract to DEC serves to alert marine biologists to the possible rescue of live animals and the identification and autopsy of carcasses. The hotline telephone number to report stranded animals is (631)369-9829. Future programs include education and enforcement to reduce the number of collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing nets, the designation of areas in U. S. waters as "critical habitat" needed for the survival of this species, and restriction of recreational whale watching activities. The population may be increasing, but this is difficult to determine since an increase in reported numbers may be the result of an increase in the number of whale-watchers and enhanced research efforts.
Katona, S. K., V. Rough and D. T. Richardson. 1983. A field guide to the whales, porpoises and seals of the Gulf of Maine and Eastern Canada. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. Pp. 55-62.
Leatherwood, S., D. K. Caldwell and H. E. Winn. 1976. Whales, dolphins and porpoises of the western North Atlantic - a guide to their identification. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service NOAA Tech. Report NMFS CIRC-396, Seattle, Washington. Pp 52-56.
Leatherwood, S. and R. R. Reeves. 1983. The Sierra Club handbook of whales and dolphins. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 320 pp.
National Marine Fisheries Service. 1991. Recovery Plan for the Northern Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis). Prepared by the Right Whale Recovery Team for the National Marine Fisheries Service, Silver Spring, Maryland.
Drawing by Elane Eckert