Warm temperate to subpolar latitudes of the north Atlantic Ocean
Coastal to open ocean (pelagic)
Endangered (Highly Vulnerable To Extinction)
Order Cetacea (whales and dolphins), Family Balaenidae (right whales)
The North Atlantic right whale has the unfortunate distinction of being named by the whaling industry because it was the “right whale” to hunt. It was easy to harpoon and it floated after death, while some other species sunk. These characteristics led to this species being hunted to near extinction, and even 65 years after hunting of North Atlantic right whales ceased, it is still struggling to recover.
The North Atlantic right whale is one of three species of right whales (the North Pacific right whale and Southern right whale are the other two). Like all the great baleen whales, this species reaches very large sizes. With lengths up to 50 feet (15 m) and weights up to 64 metric tonnes (140,000 pounds), the North Atlantic right whale is one of the largest species on earth. Interestingly, though they are enormous, North Atlantic right whales are not predatory. They filter feed for prey and are totally harmless to people (other than through accidental collisions). This life history strategy is common among several large animals in the ocean, including the whale shark, the basking shark, and the other great whales. As opposed to other large baleen whales, which gulp water and filter out their prey after contracting their throat muscles and squeezing out the gulped water, right whales filter feed by swimming with their mouths open and capturing prey in their specially angled baleen through which the water flows. Their preferred prey consists of mostly pelagic crustaceans, like krill and copepods.
Like all whales, North Atlantic right whales are mammals and give live birth to very large calves that they nurse for about one year. Males do not provide parental care and do not seem to live near the females/young for most of the year. Individual are known to undergo very long migrations between feeding grounds in sub-polar areas and calving grounds in warm temperate latitudes. Their very large size may help North Atlantic right whales (and other migrating animals) survive such long trips through waters that may provide relatively little food. During their migrations, these whales stay somewhat close to the coast, so they are particularly vulnerable to strikes by large ships or entanglement in fishing gear.
The massive hunting effort that reduced North Atlantic right whale populations dramatically and the present day ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear combine to threaten this species’ continued existence. Scientists believe it to be endangered (highly vulnerable to extinction) and estimate the total numbers to be 400. The eastern Atlantic Ocean population is critically endangered and may, in fact, be extinct. This species is one of the most at risk cetaceans on Earth. The western Atlantic population has complete legal protection in both Canada and the United States (most of its range), a result of its grim conservation status. Current population trends are unknown, but without continued changes to human behavior in North Atlantic right whale feeding and calving grounds and along their migration routes, even a slight downward trend could cause this species to be lost forever.
Oceana campaigns in the United States and Canada to reduce threats to North Atlantic right whales, including entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with ships. Learn more on our North Atlantic right whale campaign page or take action right now using the banner below.
1. North Atlantic right whales grow up to 52 feet (15.8 m) long and weigh up to 140,000 pounds (63.5 metric tons).
2. North Atlantic right whales can live at least 70 years. Researchers use their ear wax to determine their age after they have died.
3. North Atlantic right whales have rough, white patches on their heads known as callosities that are unique to each individual.
4. North Atlantic right whales travel more than 1,000 miles (1,609 km) between calving grounds in the U.S. Southeast and feeding grounds in the U.S. Northeast and Canada.
5. North Atlantic right whales socialize at the water’s surface in what is known as “surface-active groups.” They can also often be seen breaching and slapping their tails and flippers at the surface.1
Oceana joined forces with Sailors for the Sea, an ocean conservation organization dedicated to educating and engaging the world’s boating community. Sailors for the Sea developed the KELP (Kids Environmental Lesson Plans) program to create the next generation of ocean stewards. Click here or below to download hands-on marine science activities for kids.