North Atlantic Right Whale
Range/Geographical Distribution: The western population of the north Atlantic right whales range from temperate to polar latitudes in the northwestern Atlantic Ocean between 20° and 60° latitude. Distribution changes throughout the year as they migrate along the eastern seaboard, from Iceland to Florida. Calving areas occur off the shallow coasts of Georgia and Florida during the winter months. Nursery and summer feeding grounds are in New England and stretch north to the Bay of Fundy and the Scotian Shelf (Nova Scotia). An eastern population exists, although its numbers are near extinct, that migrates from Eastern Europe to the northwest coast of Africa.
Habitat: Right whale habitat is heavily dependent upon food density. They are often found along coasts and shelf waters, where nutrient levels are high. Some deep ocean activity has been documented.
ESA Critical Habitat:
- Coastal Florida and Georgia
- Great South Channel (Gulf of Maine)
- Massachusetts Bay and Cape Cod Bay (New England)
- Bay of Fundy (Maine and Canada)
- Scotian Shelf (Nova Scotia)
Description: Stocky body, lacking a dorsal fin on their broad, flat back. Right Whales are a baleen species and exhibit characteristic callosities on their head. These patches of raised calluses are unique and are used for identification purposes. The white color of the callosities is due to the presence of colonies of cyamids or whale lice. There are two sides the whale’s blowhole, causing a distinct V-shape when water and air exit. The fluke is deeply notched in the center with smooth edges.
Size: Adults are 45-55 feet long, with the head accounting for one third of the total length. At birth, calves are 13-15 feet in length and weigh 2,000 lbs. Adults weigh 200,000 lbs.
Food: Various zooplankton, primarily copepods, that are skimmed through their baleen plates. Euphausiids and cyprids are nutrient sources as well.
Breeding: The only known calving grounds for the north Atlantic right whale is the critical habitat off coastal Georgia and northern Florida. The average age of birthing mothers is 10 years old and females calve every three to five years. After a one year gestation, calving occurs from December to March and peaks in January.
Predators: Large sharks and the killer whale.
Conservation Status: Right whales are one of the rarest and most endangered of all marine mammals. Their population decline is a result of whaling, which reached its peak in the 1700’s. Forty percent of this whale’s mass is blubber, making it the “right” whale to hunt as it floated once killed. Combined with its accessible coastal habitat and slow speed (6 mph), the whaling industry hunted this mammal to near extinction. In 1935, the Convention for the Regulation of Whaling made it illegal to commercially kill right whales although Japan and the Soviet Union refused to sign the agreement. The right whale was listed as endangered under the United States’ Endangered Species Conservation Act in June 1970 and listed as “depleted” in the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1973. There are only 300-400 north Atlantic right whales globally. The north Pacific right whale population is estimated to be even fewer.
Interesting Facts: Right whale oil is obtained from its blubber and is referred to as “train oil”. Whale oil was also used to illuminate lamps, for heating, and to make candle wax. Early lighthouses even burned whale oil. It was also used in the preparation of margarine and as the basis of a popular steel protective paint. Other uses include the manufacturing of soap, textiles, jute, varnish, and explosives. The baleen of right whales was used in hoopskirts, corsets, chimney sweeps, umbrellas, and whips.
On the Coast: Coastal Georgia is listed as one of the north Atlantic right whale’s critical habitats as it is where calving mothers give birth. The South Atlantic Bight’s shallow, warm waters provide a high nutrient concentration with few predators. The Georgia DNR Non-Game Conservation Unit does aerial monitoring of the mammals and helps prevent this whale’s two major anthropogenic mortalities: fishing gear entanglements and ship collisions.