North Atlantic right whale mother and calf, by Gill Braulik under Permit No. 655-1652
Estimated population: 350 to 400
Status: Endangered (IUCN Red List)
Range: East coast of North America from Newfoundland to Florida; a population that existed off Iceland and northern Europe is now thought extinct
Length: 45 to 55 feet
Weight: Up to 70 tons
Life span: Historically, 50 to 70 years; but whales born today have a life expectancy around 15 years, owing in part to ship strikes and entanglements
Age at first breeding: Males unknown, females 9 years
Gestation period: 12-14 months; females give birth every 3 to 6 years
Diet: Plankton, especially copepods, strained through baleen plates in the mouth
Top speed: 10 mph, for brief periods
Diving ability: to 1,000 feet depth, for 40 minutes
The North Atlantic right whale is a large, mostly black whale with whitish patches on the head and belly, no dorsal fin, and a graceful, deeply notched "fluke," or tail. Like blue whales and humpbacks--and unlike killer whales and sperm whales--it has long, mustache-like fringes of baleen instead of teeth, which it uses to strain tiny animals from the water for food. Two blowholes on the top of its head give a distinctive V-shape to a right whale's spout. It is one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world.
North Atlantic right whales spend much of their lives in the cool, productive waters off the northeastern U.S. and Canada. Once a year, pregnant females and a few other members of the population migrate south along the coast to Georgia and Florida. There the females give birth to calves that are 10-15 feet long and weigh around 1.5 tons. Calves drink mother's milk for 8 to 17 months after they are born.
Large and slow, with thick blubber that yielded lots of oil, the right whale was an early and favorite target of whalers. People hunted them for several centuries, calling them the "right" whales to catch since they remain afloat after they've been killed.
It's unclear how many right whales swam the North Atlantic before whaling began, but by the early twentieth century their numbers were down to a few hundred. In 1935 they received international protection, but in the following 70 years their numbers have failed to bounce back the way some other whale species have. Meanwhile, new hazards continue to claim individuals at a slow but deadly pace. Sadly, most deaths are due to human impacts.
There are two other right whale species in the world: one in the North Pacific (Eubalaena japonica, the North Pacific right whale), where about 100 still live, and another in the Southern Ocean (Eubalaena australis, the southern right whale), where there are about 8,000.