North Atlantic Right Whale

Eubalaena glacialis

SARA Status
No Status
NS
Special Concern
SC
Threatened
TH
Endangered
EN
Extirpated
EX

SARA Status

  • No Status NS
  • Special Concern SC
  • Threatened TH
  • Endangered EN
  • Extirpated EX
COSEWIC Status
Not at Risk
NR
Special Concern
SC
Threatened
TH
Endangered
EN
Extirpated
EX

COSEWIC Status

  • Not at Risk NR
  • Special Concern SC
  • Threatened TH
  • Endangered EN
  • Extirpated EX

Description

The North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) has a large head that takes up nearly a quarter of the length of its body. Right whales, which can grow up to 18 metres in length, can be recognized by:

  • wide tail flukes and narrow tailstock, large flippers and no fin on its back (no dorsal fin);
  • black skin, though some right whales have white patches on the throat or belly; and
  • rough white patches of skin called callosities on their head, chin and sometimes on the edge of their lower lips. Each whale's callosity pattern is unique, allowing scientists to recognize individual whales.

Right whales live at least 75 years. They are curious and acrobatic, often breaching and smacking the surface with their flippers and flukes (tails). Right whales generally dive for about 20 minutes at a time.

Female right whales are generally larger than males. Females give birth to young, called calves, every 2 to 6 years. Calves nurse for 1 to 2 years and remain close to their mothers until they reach sexual maturity at approximately 10 years of age. Since the 1990s, the right whale birth rate has varied significantly. In the 1999/2000 calving season, only 1 calf was born. In 2008/2009, a record 39 calves were born. Scientists have linked this changing birth rate to the amount and quality of their food. While the population has been increasing since the 1980s, right whale adults and calves continue to face threats all over their habitat in Canada and the U.S. In 2016, the population was estimated to be about 450 animals.

Right whales usually feed on one kind of food: tiny crustaceans called copepods. They may also feed opportunistically on other types of zooplankton. Like other baleen whales, such as the humpback, the right whale has no teeth; instead it has a series of fringed plates—called baleen plates—hanging from each side of its upper jaw. During feeding, a right whale swims slowly with its mouth open. When the whale closes its mouth, the water is forced out and the baleen plates act as filters, trapping food on the inside that they then swallow.

Habitat

The right whale is a migratory species that frequents coastal waters. Right whales come to Atlantic Canadian waters to feed on rich supplies of their prey. They may be present here in the spring, summer and fall. In winter, female right whales migrate to coastal waters off the coasts of Florida and Georgia, which are important calving areas. At any time of year, some portion of the population is in unknown locations.

Right whale critical habitat has been identified in the Grand Manan Basin (Bay of Fundy) and Roseway Basin (off southwestern Nova Scotia). Critical habitat is a place that a species relies on, because it provides conditions that the species needs for survival or recovery. Right whale critical habitat areas support the following functions: foraging, feeding, nursing, raising calves, resting and socializing. Features of the critical habitat that support those activities include the quantity and quality of the prey available, the acoustic environment and the quality of water and air.

North Atlantic right whales. Photo credit: Jolinne Surrette

North Atlantic right whales
Photo credit: Jolinne Surrette

North Atlantic right whales. Photo credit: Jolinne Surrette

North Atlantic right whales
Photo credit: Jolinne Surrette

Threats

Collisions with vessels, entanglement in fishing gear and underwater noise are the most serious threats to the right whale population. Measures are in place in both of the right whale critical habitat areas to reduce the chance of vessel collisions. Emergency response networks are available to respond to whale entanglements. DFO is working with partners to develop recovery measures to understand and reduce all threats to the species.

Further Information

The North Atlantic right whale is listed as an endangered species under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). A Recovery Strategy has been developed for this species. The whale is also protected under a number of other acts, regulations and agreements.

A Proposed Action Plan was posted on the Species at Risk Public Registry for a 60-day comment period from August 18, 2016 – October 17, 2016. The posting of the Final version of the Action Plan is anticipated.

To successfully implement the Recovery Strategy and the Action Plan, the federal government will continue to work with researchers, industry members, conservation groups, Indigenous organizations and others.

Canadians can work together to reduce threats to the North Atlantic right whale. You can help by finding out more about right whales and being aware of threats posed by humans. You can help to reduce these threats wherever possible to better protect the right whale population. Funding for recovery or conservation actions may be available through funding programs, such as the Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk.

For more documentation regarding the North Atlantic right whale, visit the SARA Public Registry.

Did You Know?

Right whales are known to form large groups, called surface active groups (or SAGs), in which many males compete for the attention of a female. Right whales form SAGs in the Bay of Fundy and these are a highlight to observe for whale-watchers and scientists alike.

Occasionally researchers observe right whales with mud on their heads, picked up from the bottom of the ocean. The reason for this isn't entirely known, though it may be because the whales were feeding on prey located close to the bottom.

Named the right whale by whalers, because it is slow-moving and easy to catch, this whale was hunted to near extinction by the late 1800s. In 1935, the League of Nations banned hunting of right whales in all oceans.

North Atlantic Right Whale

Right whale

Photo credit: Jeffrey C. Domm

Scientific name: Eubalaena glacialis
Taxonomy: Mammals
SARA Status: Endangered
COSEWIC Status: Endangered
Region: Atlantic Ocean

Identifying and Reporting North Atlantic Right Whales

Narrator: "Fisheries and Oceans Canada presents: Identifying and Reporting North Atlantic Right Whales"

Cathy Merriman: "I’m Cathy Merriman, a senior Species at Risk Biologist. I work with many partners to help North Atlantic right whales recover.

“If you ever see a right whale, DFO would love to know, because right whales are an endangered species. Scientists estimate there are only about 500 left in the North Atlantic Ocean and in eastern Canada. They range from Florida in the south to Newfoundland in the north. They are most often seen in the Bay of Fundy, Roseway Basin and the Gulf of St. Lawrence in summer and fall.

“North Atlantic right whales have a V-shaped blow, which makes them easy to distinguish when seen from a distance. Another way to tell them apart from other large whales is that they have no dorsal fin. They are mostly black, though some have white patches on their belly or chin. All right whales have crusty whitish-grey markings on their head and face, known as callosities. These marks are as unique as fingerprints, and help researchers identify each individual whale."

Dr. Hilary Moors-Murphy: "Hello, I’m Dr. Hilary Moors-Murphy. I’m a DFO Research Scientist and I study and monitor whales in Eastern Canada.

“You can see in this footage that right whales swim relatively slowly, especially while feeding. On the water, I often see them gathered in social groups of several whales. Right whales grow up to 17 meters in length. They are relatively stout, and their head is about one third of their body length.

“Please help DFO monitor right whales and report all sightings. Remember to provide important details about your sighting, including the number and type of whales seen, the date and time, and the location, such as your latitude and longitude. When possible, please share your photos and video as well.

“To report right whale sightings, please call  1-844-800-8568 or email  XMARWhaleSightings@dfo-mpo.gc.ca.

“If you see entangled, injured or dead whales, please contact the Marine Animal Response Society as soon as possible at  1-866-567-6277 or VHF Channel 16 or email  marineanimalresponse@gmail.com."

Right whale

Figure 1. Critical habitat of the North Atlantic Right Whale in Canada

Figure 1, entitled Critical habitat of the North Atlantic Right Whale in Canada is a map of the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine. There is a grey shaded area in the middle of the Bay of Fundy with coordinates listed in the inset. This area indicates the Grand Manan Basin critical habitat. There is a grey shaded area to the southeast of Nova Scotia with coordinates listed in the inset. This area indicates the Roseway Basin critical habitat.

North Atlantic Right Whale Call - Roseway Basin (off southwestern Nova Scotia)

North Atlantic right whales make a variety of different low frequency sounds below 500 Hz. These calls are known as upcalls and can be described as a short upsweeping whoop sound, which lasts about two seconds. Upcalls are a communication signal and we use the presence of upcalls to help us find right whales in the recordings from our passive acoustic monitoring stations. These upcalls were recorded during early fall in Roseway Basin, an area that has been designated critical habitat for Endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Interactive Map: Right whale sightings along the eastern seaboard. (Includes historical data.) Image credit: NOAA Fisheries

Interactive Map: Right whale sightings along the eastern seaboard. (Includes historical data.)
Image credit: NOAA Fisheries

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