Today’s endangered animal comes to you from the Atlantic oceans of North America. There are three types of right whales: the North Atlantic, Pacific and Southern right whales. The one I will be discussing today is the North Atlantic because it’s been cropping up a lot in the news lately as it is estimated to be on the brink of extinction.
North Atlantic right whales have a very distinctive appearance. They are about 95% black in color all over with a few having white spots speckled here and there around their face. This was interesting to me because the only whale with black on it that I’d known about before were Orcas (killer whales). Another distinctive feature of the right whale is it does not have a dorsal fin. Instead it has large pectoral fins and a giant tale that create powerful strokes through the ocean. Right whales are larger than orcas and about two steps below blue whales which are the largest mammals in the world. Right whales are about 45-60 feet long in comparison to killer whales that are only 23-31 feet or blue whales that are 60-90+ feet long.
There are two types of whale species based on their teeth: Odontoceti and Mysticeti. The former have teeth whereas the later have baleen plates. Right whales fall into the second group. They have large baleen plates that help them capture and eat the most microscopic sea organisms. What they do is take a huge gulp of water and then the water filters out of their baleen plates while these really fine, densely packed hairs capture plankton, krill and larval stages of barnacles which are about the size of a grain of rice. Then the right whale will scrape its baleen with its tongue and swallow its tiny prey. Right whales have two blowholes on the top of their head in which they breathe air from and because they are a vertebrate, they also have a backbone.
Right whales travel in small pods of 2-3 usually. Sometimes if food is plentiful, pods of up to 12 can be seen. They feed in the temperate waters of the North and the migrate South around the coasts of Florida and Georgia to breed and give birth; between December and March. Female right whales aren’t sexually mature until they’re about 10 years old. Gestation is about 12 months and then mom will give birth to one offspring who will nurse and stay with her for 9-12 months. Female right whales only bear offspring once every 3 years. The general lifespan of a right whale is about 30 years.
North Atlantic white whales are currently listed on the IUCN database as endangered. Their name is derived from early whalers who considered these whales easy targets because they hang close to the shore, swim very slow (about 6 mph), and are very friendly toward whaling boats making them the “right” whale to hunt. Commercial whaling was huge between the 11th and 20th century. Right whales were decimated by the thousands for their baleen and oil. It wasn’t until 1935 when commercial whaling became illegal that humans realized how depleted the species had become.
Today there are about 300-350 North Atlantic individuals left in the wild and their numbers are still declining. The main threats to this species are still due to human activity; collisions with boats, fishing net entanglement and water pollution, acoustic smog (which is the sounds from boat horns and drilling that inhibit whales from communicating with each other) and climate change are the main factors. Scientists and conservationists have been following a pod of individuals and it’s been noted that no offspring have been born in several decades, or if they have, it’s every 9 years instead of every 3, which is a huge problem considering how long it takes for these whales to breed in the first place.
Conservation efforts have been going on for many years. One main operation involves improving shipping lanes between northern US and Canada to reduce ship collisions. Another route is conversation programs and initiatives for people to get involved in spreading awareness. WWF suggests buying only seafood that’s MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certified because they promote healthy, sustainable fishing practices.
If after reading all of this, you decide you would like to support the cause, check out the New England Aquarium website HERE where you can adopt a right whale and buy merchandise where the proceeds go to right whale conservation research and development.