Right Whale

(Eubalaena japonica)

Identification

Size

  • to a maximum length of 17 metres and 100 tonnes.
  • extremely stout body forms – their girth is as much as 60% of their length

Colour 

  • mostly black with irregular white patches on the sides of their belly

Dorsal fin

  • no dorsal fin

 

Blow

  • distinct V-shaped blow, upwards of 5 metres in height

Tail fluke

  • broad and symmetrical, with a distinct notch
  • shows tail fluke upon diving

Surface behaviour

  • usually inconspicuous, although fluking, pectoral fin slapping and even breaching have been known to occur.

 

Group size / social behaviour 

  • typically solitary or in small groups

Other characteristics

  • large pectoral flippers and broad tail flukes, but no dorsal fin
  • head is often covered in white callosities – small, irregular knobs of calloused skin
  • callosities are usually covered in whale lice

Can be confused with

  • humpback whales

Natural History

There are three species of right whales recognized in the world, Eubalaena australis (the Southern right whale), Eubalaena glacialis (the North Atlantic right whale), and Eubalaena japonica – the North Pacific right whale.

A pod of right whales in the Atlantic Ocean

Right whales were named by whalers because they were the ‘right’ whale to hunt. They are very slow moving, easy to approach, live close to shore, provide vast quantities of oil, meat and bone, and their carcasses float. Due to intense whaling during the 17th and 18th centuries, the population of North Pacific right whales is now thought to number less than 100, making this species the most endangered whale in the world. A confirmed right whale sighting had not occured in British Columbian waters since 1951 until one was photographed and observed by scientists with Fisheries and Oceans Canada in June 2013. Read about this sighting here.

 

Right whales generally inhabit temperate to sub-polar inshore waters. Calving grounds are in very shallow regions of these waters. Newborns are 4.5 to 6 metres in length and weigh about 1 tonne. In 2002, a female with a young calf was observed in the Bering Sea. This was the first calf seen in the past century.

Historic whaling of right whales in the North Pacific

It is believed that right whales spend summers in higher latitude waters feeding, and females go to warmer sub-tropical waters for winter calving. Little is known about the current distribution of north Pacific right whales because of their extremely low population size.

A right whale at Kyuquot Whaling Station, 1918

Right whales are more closely related to bowhead and grey whales than to the “rorqual” whales (such as humpback whales and blue whales).

Right whales feed mainly on copepods – plankton about the size of a grain of rice. In the southeastern Bering Sea, the species Calanus marshallae is the most important prey species. However, they will also feed on small krill (small, shrimp-like plankton) and the larval stage of many other species of crustacean. Right whales are “skimmers” or “ram filter feeders” – feeding by swimming forward with their mouth wide open. They frequently skim the surface for food, but also feed at depth and have even been seen with mud on their heads after a long dive, indicating that they were feeding on the bottom.

Status in Canada

The North Pacific right whale is designated as Endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).

 

COSEWIC’s assessment of the North Pacific population of right whales is as follows:

Although there have not been sightings of this species in the last 50 years in Canadian waters, there have been sightings both south and north of British Columbia waters. Therefore, it is not appropriate to classify the species as extirpated. The total population in the eastern North Pacific likely numbers a few tens of animals.

PUBLICATIONS

Brownell, R.L. Jr, Clapham, P.J., Miyashita, T. and Kasuya, T. 2001. Conservation status of North Pacific right whales. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 2: 269-286

Mellinger, D.K., K.M. Stafford, S.E. Moore, L. Munger, and C.G. Fox. 2004. Detection of North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica) calls in the Gulf of Alaska, 1999-2001. Marine Mammal Science 20(4): 872-879.

Shelden, K.E.W., S.E. Moore, J.M. Waite, P.R. Wade, and D.J. Rugh. 2005. Historic and current habitat use by North Pacific right whales Eubalaena japonica in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. Mammal Review 35: 129-155.

Shelden, K.E.W. and P.J. Clapham. 2006. Habitat requirements and extinction risks of eastern North Pacific right whales. AFSC Processed Rep. 2006-06, 52 p. Alaska Fisheries Science Center, NMFS, NOAA, 7600 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle WA 98115.

Wade, P., M.P. Heide-Jorgensen, K. Shelden, J. Barlow, J. Carretta, J. Durban, R. LeDuc, L. Munger, S. Rankin, A. Sauter and P. Stinchcomb. 2006. Acoustic detection and satellite-tracking leads to discovery of rare concentration of endangered North Pacific right whales. Biological Letters 2:417-419.

Waite, J.M., K. Wynne and D.K. Mellinger. 2003. Documented sighting of a north Pacific right whale in the Gulf of Alaska and post-sighting acoustic monitoring. Northwestern Naturalist 84: 38-43.