The northern right whale was the first of the great whales to be regularly hunted by commercial whalers. They found the whales to be the “right” whales to hunt because they were slow, easy to catch, and floated when killed. They are stocky and the thick blubber, melted down, gave good oil yield. Today, right whales are found in small numbers worldwide. Three species of right whales are found in the North Atlantic ocean, the North Pacific ocean, and the southern hemisphere. Like humpback whales, they are seasonally migratory. Right whales inhabit cold water summer feeding grounds then migrate to warm water for breeding and calving. They may move far out during feeding but females return to coastal areas for and only during calving years.
The right whale is immediately recognizable among the great whales by their lack of a dorsal fin and a large bulky black body. Occasionally, the belly will have a white patch. The head is huge, the mouth line high, with highly curved upper and lower jaws allowing nine and half foot baleen plates to be enclosed while swimming. The raised roughened patches of skin usually white or cream-colored are callosities. The callosities are found near the blowholes, above the eyes, on the chin, and upper lip. These appear white because of massive infestations of cyamids or whale lice. The flippers are large and paddle shaped. The flukes, usually raised during a dive, are triangular and very broad, with smooth margins, and a deep notch in the center. Full-grown adults are thirty-five to fifty-five feet in length, weighing one hundred twenty thousand pounds.
Males reach sexual maturity at thirty-five to forty feet, and females at forty to forty-five feet. Right whales are born tail first and near the surface after a twelve month gestation period. The calf is about sixteen to nineteen feet in length at birth. It is nurtured with its mother’s milk for up to a year at which time the calf is roughly twenty-eight feet long. Females produce a calf every three to four years. Normally found alone or in a group of three, right whales may form larger groups for socially or for courtship, which takes place at all times of year. The only long-term bond is between mother and calf.
A less varied diet than other whales, they feed on plankton, copepods and occasionally krill. Right whales are skim feeders, moving through the water slowly with mouth agaped and constantly filter prey through their finely meshed baleen. The baleen plates are up to nine and half feet long.
Although protected world wide, there is no precise estimates on numbers. There are believed to be three hundred right whales in the western North Atlantic, with predictions that the population may be extinct in less than two hundred years. Fishing gear entanglement and ship collisions are the most common threats causing injury and death, as well as pollutants and climate change.