Right whales are three species of baleen whales of the genus Eubalaena:
- the North Atlantic right whale,
- North Pacific right whale, and
- southern right whale
They are part of the family Balaenidae with the bowhead whale. Right whales have very rounded bodies with arching rostrums, V-shaped blowholes, and dark gray or black skin.
The most distinguishing feature of a right whale is the rough patches of skin on its head which appear white due to parasitism by whale lice.
Right whales can attain a length of as much as 59 ft (18 m) long and weigh up to 120,000 lbs (54,431 kg). which is significantly larger than many other whales in the ocean, such as humpbacks or grays, but smaller than blues.
Right Whale Feeding Habits
All three species are highly migratory, moving seasonally to feed or give birth. The warm equatorial waters form a barrier that isolates the northern and southern species from one another.
In the Northern Hemisphere, right whales tend to avoid open waters and stay close to peninsulas and bays and on continental shelves, as these areas usually provide greater shelter and an abundance of their preferred foods.
In the Southern Hemisphere, right whales feed far offshore in summer, but a large portion of the population occurs in nearshore waters in winter.
Right Whale Courting and Mating
During courtship, males gather into large groups to compete for a single female, suggesting that sperm competition appears to be an important factor in mating behavior.
Although the blue whale is the largest animal on the planet, the testes of the right whale are actually ten times larger than those of the blue whale, with each weighing up to 1,157 lbs (525 kg)! They are by far the largest of any animal on Earth.
Gestation tends to last a year, and calves are born averaging 13-20 ft (4-6 m). Weaning occurs after about eight months.
Because of their docile nature, their slow surface-skimming feeding behaviors, their tendencies to stay close to the coast, and their high blubber content (which makes them float when they are killed, and which produces high yields of whale oil), right whales used to be a preferred target for whalers. Fortunately, this practice is almost obsolete.
Right Whale Endangered Status
Today, the North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales are among the most endangered whales in the world. Both species are protected in the United States by the Endangered Species Act.
The western populations of both are currently endangered, with their total populations numbering no more than a few hundred. The eastern North Pacific population, on the other hand, with less than 50 individuals remaining, is under the category of Critically Endangered. Worse yet, the eastern North Atlantic population, which numbers in the low teens at best, may already be functionally extinct.
Although no longer facing a threat from whaling, mankind remains by far the greatest threat to these species: the two leading causes of death are from being struck by ships, and from entanglement in fishing gear.