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 2018, the population was estimated to be about 411 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. © Jolinne Surrette

North Atlantic right whales
© Jolinne Surrette

North Atlantic right whales. © Jolinne Surrette

North Atlantic right whales
© 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

North Atlantic Right Whale. © Jeffrey C. Domm

North Atlantic Right Whale. © Jeffrey C. Domm

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

Video: Identifying and Reporting North Atlantic Right Whales

Video: Identifying and Reporting North Atlantic Right Whales

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.

Video: North Atlantic Right Whale Call in the Roseway Basin off southwestern Nova Scotia

Video: North Atlantic Right Whale Call in the Roseway Basin off southwestern Nova Scotia

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

Related Information

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