- Federal Status: Endangered
- FL Status: Federally-designated Endangered
- FNAI Ranks: Not ranked
- IUCN Status: EN (Endangered)
The North Atlantic right whale is a dark gray or black whale that can reach a length of 55 feet (16.8 meters) and a weight of 110,000 pounds (49,895 kilograms). Calves (offspring) can reach a length of 15 feet (4.6 meters) and a weight up to 2,000 pounds (907.2 kilograms). The right whale lacks a dorsal (back) fin, leaving a large flat back. The North Atlantic right whale has callosities (bumps) on its head (appears white due to the white lice that convene on it), two rows of 225 baleen (filter) plates on the top jaw, and a broad rigged tail with smooth edges (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, n.d.).
Right whales lack a dorsal fin; therefore, they have a large, flat back. They are dark gray or black and have "bumps" called callosities, on their head. The callosities appear white due to the presence of cyamids, or whale lice, that often congregate on the callosities. When right whales breathe they produce a V-shaped blow that is often as high as 15 feet and is visible from a great distance. Measuring up to 55 feet, an adult right whale can weigh 50 tons, and a newborn calf can measure 15 feet at birth and weigh 2,000 pounds.
Florida takes a special interest in right whales because their only known calving ground is located off the coasts of Georgia and Florida.
In 1994, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) designated the coastal waters of Florida and Georgia as the right whale critical habitat in the Southeast U.S. This designation provides more protection for right whales while they are in the calving grounds. In an effort to protect this critical stage in the life of right whales, researchers, including the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GDNR), and the New England Aquarium (NEA), fly Early Warning System (EWS) aerial surveys to locate animals during the calving season. The EWS surveys are organized to relay location information to mariners in an attempt to prevent vessel-whale collisions. Additionally, in July 1999, NMFS and the U.S. Coast Guard developed and implemented Mandatory Ship Reporting systems (MSR). The International Maritime Organization, a specialized organization of the United Nations, endorsed the MSR systems. When ships greater than 300 gross tons enter two key right whale habitats-one off the Northeast U.S. and one off the Southeast U.S.-they are required to report to a shore-based station. In return, ships receive a message about right whales, their vulnerability to ship strikes, precautionary measures the ship can take to avoid hitting a whale, and locations of recent sightings.
Due to their coastal nature, right whales are often visible from the beach. Many citizens along Florida's eastern coast are involved in a right whale sighting network to help relay whale locations to mariners. When a right whale is sighted the information is reported to the Marine Resources Council sighting hotline (1-888-97-WHALE or 1-888-404-FWCC), where the information is then incorporated into the extensive communication network that informs mariners of right whale locations. Other species of whales are also found in Florida coastal waters, so it is important to be able to distinguish a right whale from other animals when reporting a sighting.
The North Atlantic right whale, Eubalaena glacialis, is one of the most endangered large whales in the world, facing a high likelihood of extinction largely due to human activities. About 300 animals remain of the western North Atlantic population, which is commonly found off the East Coast of the United States and Canada. Whalers labeled these animals "right whales" because they considered them the "right" whales to hunt. They swam slowly in coastal waters, floated when dead, and yielded large amounts of oil and baleen. Right whales had been hunted to near extinction when hunting was finally banned in 1935. Although whaling is now illegal, right whales are still strongly affected by human activities. Approximately 30 percent of all mortalities result from collisions with large vessels or entanglement in fishing gear.
From approximately December through March, pregnant females migrate from their northern feeding grounds to the sheltered waters of the calving ground to give birth to their young.
The right whales' preference for coastal waters places them in commercial fisheries areas and increases their chances of gear entanglements. Approximately 57% of the photo-cataloged population of right whales exhibit scars from previous entanglements. If an entangled animal is sighted, immediately notify the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF CH. 16. Include the time, GPS coordinates and physical location, and the animal's direction of travel. As members of the U.S. large whale disentanglement network, FWC North Atlantic right whale researchers have received specialized training; they can respond in the event that an entangled whale is sighted in the southeast.
The right whale is a filter feeder and primarily feeds on calanoid copepods – a type of zooplankton (NMFS 2005). It also feeds on small crustaceans and the larva of barnacles (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, n.d.).
North Atlantic right whales are polygamous breeders (a female mates with more than one male), and permanent bonds are not formed between breeding pairs. Females give birth to approximately one calf every three years between the months of December and March off the Atlantic Coast of Florida and Georgia (NMFS 2005). Females do not feed while in the breeding areas off the Georgia and Florida Atlantic coasts. The gestation (pregnancy) period is 12 months, with the calves weaned by the end of their first year (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, n.d.).
Historically, right whales were hunted to near extinction. They were given the name “right whale” by fishermen because they were the easiest whales to catch because they swim slowly, float when dead, and they contain large amount of oil that could be utilized. In 1949, the International Whaling Commission made it illegal for right whales to be hunted commercially. Today, the main threat to their population is collisions with large ships and entanglement in fishing gear (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, n.d.). Other threats include habitat degradation from contaminants.
Conservation and Management
The North Atlantic right whale is protected as an Endangered species by the Federal Endangered Species Act and as a Federally-designated Endangered species by Florida’s Endangered and Threatened Species Rule. North Atlantic right whales are also Federally protected as a Depleted species by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
National Marine Fisheries Service. 2010. North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis). National Marine Fisheries Service, Silver Spring, MD.
National Marine Fisheries Service. 2005. Recovery Plan for the North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis). National Marine Fisheries Service, Silver Spring, MD.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. (n.d.). North Atlantic Right Whale. Retrieved May 18, 2011, from NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/cetaceans/rightwhale_northatlantic.htm