Right Whales
Right Whales

Photograph by Brian Skerry National Geographic October 2008

There are three species of right whales: the North Atlantic, Eubalaena glacialis; North Pacific, Eubalaena japonica; and southern, Eubalaena australis. Both North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales are endangered, with only a couple hundred of each, and marine scientists are keeping a close eye on southern right whales, whose numbers have risen steadily from a few hundred in the 19th century to at least 10,000 today.

Bibliography
Chadwick, Douglas. "On the Brink, On the Rebound." National Geographic (October 2008), 100-21.

North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium.

Canadian Whale Institute.

North Atlantic Right Whale, Eubalaena glacialis. NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources.

North Pacific Right Whale, Eubalaena japonica. NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources.

Southern Right Whale, Eubalaena australis. NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources.

Dolphins, Whales and Porpoises: 2002-2010 Conservation Action Plan for the World's Cetaceans. Compiled by Randall Reeves and others. IUCN/SSC Cetacean Specialist Group, 2003.

Southern Right Whale 5-Year Review: Summary and Evaluation. National Marine Fisheries Service, Office of Protected Resources, October 2007.

North Atlantic Right Whale, Species at Risk Act, Government of Canada.

The New Zealand Subantarctic Stock of Right Whales. Oregon State University Cetacean Conservation Genetics Lab.

American Cetacean Society.

Kraus, Scott, and Rosalind Rolland. The Urban Whale: North Atlantic Right Whales at the Crossroads. Harvard University Press, 2007.

Mead, James, and Joy Gold. Whales and Dolphins in Questions: The Smithsonian Answer Book. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002.

How to Identify a North Atlantic Right Whale

Some 350 to 400 North Atlantic right whales ply the eastern North American coast, ranging from their summer feeding waters in the Bay of Fundy (between Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia) to their calving waters off Georgia and Florida.

Once North Atlantic right whales are almost a year old, they develop callosities, cornified skin patches like calluses, on their heads and jaw and near their blowholes (right whales have two blowholes that cause their characteristic V-shaped spray). These callosity patterns are more or less consistent for the whale's lifetime and are unique, like fingerprints. Right whales can also be identified by their coloration (e.g., white patches on their bellies or flukes), lip ridges, scars, skin lesions, and bite marks.

Since 1980 researchers have been making visual, photographic, and increasingly, DNA assessments of North Atlantic right whales and entering them into a database called the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog. The catalog contains records on more than 450 individual whales that have been photographed from 1935 to the present. Along with unique identifying marks such as callosity patterns and scars, catalog records also include mother-calf relationships and lists of all sightings by date and place. The catalog is searchable online.

Bibliography
Right Whale Callosity Pattern Identification. New England Aquarium.

Monitoring Right Whale Individuals and Family Histories. New England Aquarium.

Right Whale Identification. North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium.

North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog.

Day, Trevor. Whale Watcher: A Global Guide to Watching Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises in the Wild. Firefly Books, 2006.

Kraus, Scott, and Rosalind Rolland. The Urban Whale: North Atlantic Right Whales at the Crossroads. Harvard University Press, 2007.

Mead, James, and Joy Gold. Whales and Dolphins in Questions: The Smithsonian Answer Book. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002.

Threats and Conservation Efforts

North Atlantic right whales feed, mate, and give birth in a heavily industrialized maritime corridor from eastern Canada to the southern United States. These marine giants were first commercially hunted by Basque whalers in the 11th century. By the early 20th century, European, Canadian, and American whalers had hunted the slow-moving species almost to extinction. A hunting ban on right whales went into effect in 1935 and continues today. With 1 to 2 percent growth, the current population of 350 to 400 individuals is barely holding steady, meaning that any increase in the mortality rate seriously threatens the future of the species. The good news is that saving only two reproducing females a year could put North Atlantic right whales on the path to recovery.

Right whales are hampered by a relatively low birthrate, and researchers think one cause may be ocean pollution. But the biggest threats to these whales are collisions with shipping vessels and entanglement in fishing gear. Studies have shown that lower vessel speeds significantly reduce the likelihood that a ship collision will result in a whale death and have proposed that speed limits be lowered in critical right whale habitat. A few success stories have been recorded, such as the rerouting of shipping lanes in Canada's Roseway Basin away from areas where right whales congregate and the deployment of autodetection buoys in the shipping lanes of Massachusetts Bay and Boston Harbor to listen for right whales and warn ships to avoid them.

Bibliography
"Convention for the Regulation of Whaling 1931." Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

"Chairman Waxman Releases Internal Administration Documents, Calls for Right Whale Protections." U. S. House of Representatives, April 30, 2008.

"Protecting the North Atlantic Right Whale Through International Designation of Roseway Basin." Transport Canada, October 2007.

"New Whale Detection Buoys Will Help Ships Take the Right Way Through Marine Habitat." Aquatic Network, May 4, 2008.

International Whaling Commission (IWC).

Elvin, S. S., and C. T. Taggart. "Right Whales and Vessels in Canadian Waters." Marine Policy (in press).

Vanderlaan, Angelia, and Christopher Taggart. "Vessel Collisions With Whales: The Probability of Lethal Injury Based on Vessel Speed." Marine Mammal Science (January 2007), 144-56.

Kraus, Scott, and others. "North Atlantic Right Whales in Crisis." Science (July 22, 2005), 561-2.

"Routing of Ships, Ship Reporting, and Related Matters: Area to Be Avoided 'In Roseway Basin, South of Nova Scotia.'" International Maritime Organization Sub-Committee on Safety of Navigation, April 20, 2007.

Dooley, Emily. "Giants in the Balance: The Race to Save the North Atlantic Right Whale." Cape Cod Online, 2005.

"Convention for the Regulation of Whaling." American Journal of International Law (October 1936), 167-74.

Johnson, Tora. Entanglements: The Intertwined Fates of Whales and Fishermen. University Press of Florida, 2005.

Kraus, Scott, and Rosalind Rolland. The Urban Whale: North Atlantic Right Whales at the Crossroads. Harvard University Press, 2007.

Mead, James, and Joy Gold. Whales and Dolphins in Questions: The Smithsonian Answer Book. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002.