Field guide to right whales
Once targeted by commercial whale hunters, the right whale is making a slow recovery, with three species spread across the world's oceans, writes Regina Asmutis-Silvia from Whale and Dolphin Conservation
The name Eubalaena glacialis may sound like a medical diagnosis but, sadly, a pill won’t fix what ails this endangered species of whale. Its scientific label translates to ‘baleen whale of the ice’ but the species is more commonly known as the North Atlantic right whale.
Like all types of right whale, they were, at one point, quite common. So much so that early US settlers complained that the sound of the whales breathing disrupted their sleep! Perhaps apocryphally, these settlers claimed that so many right whales inhabited Cape Cod Bay that you could walk the 27km (17 miles) span from Plymouth to Provincetown on the backs of these gentle giants.
Like many cetaceans, right whales have suffered at the hands of commercial hunters. In fact, right whales are so-named because whalers considered them the ‘right’ whales to hunt – they were easy to approach and catch; floated when dead, and had a lot of oil in the cells of their blubber.
It seems the Basques in northern Spain viewed the North Atlantic right whale as a never-ending bountiful resource when they started hunting them more than 1,000 years ago. Yet now this species is far from common, with fewer than 500 individuals remaining. It didn’t take long before Basque whaling decimated the animals in the Atlantic, forcingwhalers to travel nearly 4,000km (2,500 miles) west to the Canadian provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador to hunt both right and bowhead whales. It’s unlikely they realised that bowheads and right whales are different species, never mind that three distinct species of right whales exist. Sadly, all three of these species suffered a similar fate, with commercial whalers gradually driving each of them to the brink of total extinction.
Right whale sub-species
It was only when DNA testing became possible in the new millennium that it was confirmed there were, in fact, three distinct species of right whales, living in different oceans.
While the North Atlantic right whales can be found along the east coast of the US and Canada, Southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) roam the waters of the southern hemisphere. They feed in the cold Antarctic in the austral summer, and then migrate to the waters off Australia, New Zealand, South America and South Africa each winter to mate and give birth to their 4.5m (15ft) long calves.
Southern right whales live in groups of up to 12 individuals, but are more commonly found in smaller groups of two or three, unless at feeding grounds.
The critically endangered North Pacific right whales (Eubalaena japonica) spend their summers around Alaska and may migrate as far as the tropical waters off Hawaii to breed. This journey is even more impressive when you consider that a pregnant female is nearing the end of her 12-month gestation.
Right whale distribution
In the North Atlantic, right whales hug the coast of Florida in the winter and travel up to the Gulf of St Lawrence in Canada each summer. This gives humans the perfect opportunity to catch a glimpse of these black behemoths from the land. Each April, when right whales go to Cape Cod Bay to mow through patches of tiny zooplankton called copepods, those brave enough to stand on the beaches of Provincetown and weather the spring gales may see the distinctive V-shaped spouts, smooth black backs, and massive flukes (tails) of right whales breaking the water’s surface. The very lucky watcher may see a whale breach, throwing its massive body through the air, to crash down seconds later, creating white water reaching more than 10m (30ft) high.
Historically, North Pacific right whales lived across the entire North Pacific, but commercial and illegal whaling operations decimated the species to the point that less than 100 are thought to survive. Little is known of current distribution, but consistent sightings (between April and September) in the Bering Sea led to a portion of this area being designated as Critical Habitat for the species in 2006.
Southern right whales are found between 18ºS to 55ºS, migrating between feeding grounds in the colder Antarctic waters, where they spend the austral summers, and warmer breeding grounds closer to the equator in austral winter months. Important calving andmating grounds are close to shore off the coasts of Australia, South Africa, South America (particularly Argentina) and some oceanic islands. Multiple stocks of southern right whales are thought to exist and this species has shown considerable recovery sincethe days of commercial whaling. The IUCN lists the Southern right whale in the category of ‘Least Concern’ (2008).
Where to watch Right Whales in the wild
NORTH ATLANTIC RIGHT WHALES
During March and April it is possible to see North Atlantic right whales from the shores of the Cape Cod National Sea Shore in Massachusetts, including Herring Cove and Race Point beaches, with whale watching tours departing from Provincetown. This is the closestport to the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (SBNMS), a federally protected marine habitat off the northern tip of Cape Cod.
From December to March the whales can found along the Florida coast, between St Augustine and Cape Canaveral. The best places to see the whales from the shore include St Augustine pier, Flagler Beach pier, Sunglow pier, and Main Street pier in Daytona Beach. February seems to be the best month for whale sightings there.
NORTH PACIFIC RIGHT WHALES
These are the rarest and consequently the most difficult of the three right whale species to see. Before commercial whalers heavily exploited right whales in the North Pacific, concentrations were found in the Gulf of Alaska, eastern Aleutian Islands, south central Bering Sea, Sea of Okhotsk, and Sea of Japan. However, there have been very few recent sightings of this species in the central North Pacific.
As a result of their dwindling numbers, even the most dedicated whale watcher is highly unlikely to spot a North Pacific right whale from either land or sea, but if you happen to be in the area, the Aleutian Islands in Alaska probably offer the best chance. Recent sightings in British Columbia, Canada, have also surprised experts.
SOUTHERN RIGHT WHALES
The Head of Bight (some 330km west of Ceduna) in South Australia is one of three major gathering regions for Southern right whales with up to half of the Australian population (around 10 per cent of the global population) using the area. Each year between 25 and 55 calves are born here and the Great Australian Bight Marine Park is one of the best places in the world to see this species of right whale. They can be easily spotted from the cliff tops or at the South Australian Whale Watch Centre.
Other whale watching hotspots include the Western Cape of South Africa, particularly around Hermanus in July, as the whales make their way along the ‘whale route’ between Cape Town and Durban from June to November. Also the Valdés Peninsula in the Chubut Province of Argentina, with some of the best whale watching opportunities at Golfo San José and Golfo Nuevo.
With a head nearly a third of its body, a right whale’s gaping mouth could make a roomy office, but humans need not fear being swallowed, as its throat is only the size of volleyball and its food of choice, the copepods, are about the size of a grain of rice. Yet, feeding on some of the smallest animals on earth enables the whales to reach a massive 17m (55ft) and 65,000kg (70 tons) with females edging out males.
Unlike most other large whales, right whales lack a dorsal fin, earning them the nickname ‘tubes’ when the captains of whale watching boats encounter one of these shiny black giants. Out at sea, it is possible to identify them, even from a distance, by their distinctive V-shaped spout, which results from the angled position of their blowholes. Other distinctive features include the whales’ 6m (20ft) wide triangular black flukes and their unmistakable callosities. Shortly after birth, black roughened tissue erupts from the head of right whales, which become home to small white crustaceans, called cyamids. These ‘whale lice’ give right whales the distinctive white patterns which researchers use to identify individuals. Southern right whales are slightly smaller than their northern counterparts. Otherwise, all three species are almost identical.
Right whale diet
As well as copepods, right whales can also feed on krill and pteropods. The copepods are a group of small crustaceans that are 2 to 4mm (0.08 to 0.16in) in length with an oblong body,two antennae and a single red ‘eye spot’. They swarm in thick red patches which form oily slicks at the water’s surface. It is these dense masses of copepods that right whales search for in order to gain enough weight to sustain them through a winter cleanse.
Whether they blunder into patches of plankton by searching areas they have found to be plentiful in the past, or listen for the calls of these microscopic critters is little known, but whatever the case, right whales are adept at finding their food and gathering it through their baleen plates. Made of keratin, each plate is like a 3m (10ft) hairy fingernail that juts down from the upper jaw. An assemblage of parallel baleen plates acts as a giant strainer, which traps the tiny food sources on the return journey, as an ingested mouthful of sea water returns to its ocean home. Like us, whales would become dehydrated if they drank salt water, so they expel it and acquire the nutrients and liquid they need from the nearly two tons of crustaceans they consume a day.
Right whale behaviour
Like other baleen whales, right whales do not appear to travel in stable groups or pods, but their low frequency vocalisations, ranging from ‘moans’ to ‘gunshots’, enable them to communicate with each other over tens, or perhaps hundreds of miles. It is their ‘up-call’ though, that seems to be their contact greeting, perhaps their version of saying hello. Unlike most other baleen whales right whales court each other all year round.
Although they give birth only once a year, they form Socially Active Groups, or SAGS, which may serve a generally social purpose, or may just be good practice for the winter which is when successful conception can occur.
Right whale physical characteristics
Between feeding and SAGS, right whales may ‘log’, or rest at the surface, or expend some energy by tipping themselves upside down vertically and waving their flukes or fins in the air, slapping them on the surface of the water, or breaching. Even after more than 30 years of research, scientists still have no idea why whales breach, though it undoubtedly serves a purpose which may be different for each breach. Perhaps the sound it creates in the water enables the whales to communicate, or the force removes barnacles, or maybe it simply feels good. Whatever the reason, it must be of enough importance to burn the massive number of calories it takes the whales to propel their huge bodies out of the water. For a species that needs to take in such a tonnage of nutrients to pack on the pounds to see them through the winter months, burning calories must be done sparingly.
Right whale reproduction
Female right whales reproduce as early as the age of 10, but usually in their teens. Following a 12-month pregnancy, the first-time mother gives birth to a 4.5m (15ft) long calf. She will then spend most of the next year feeding her calf around 227 litres (60 gallons) of milk each day. She teaches the calf where to find food and how to socialise before her one-year old is ready to experience the world on his or her own. During this period, new mothers can lose up to a third of their body weight due to the amount of additional energy they expend.
After giving birth, right whales usually wait a year or two before reproducing again. The female right whale is promiscuous and this fulfils an important evolutionary purpose. She will mate with multiple males, but it is only the best of the sperm that will fertilise her egg, ensuring that she brings the strongest possible offspring into the world.
Threats to right whales
As copepods migrate vertically from the depths each night, right whales slowly graze at or near the surface, putting them directly in the path of shipping. Even during the day, right whales feed, frolic and rest near the surface in busy coastal areas, making collisions one of their greatest threats. It is likely that they don’t hear a vessel until it’s too late. With engines placed at the stern and the hull largely blocking the sound, the bow of a ship slips quietly into an area 300m (1,000ft) before the noise arrives.
Lines of fishing gear produce no warning to these whales, either. Living within 30 miles of shore means sharing your home with thousands of miles of rope that create a labyrinth around which you must navigate.
Bumping into a line may not be serious, but when one becomes snagged on baleen, or wrapped around a fin, it can send the whale into a frenzied panic of rolling, which further entangles the line around its body. As the rope pulls it cuts into the whales’ skin, creating wounds and infections that can kill the individual within six months.
Right whale responsible viewing
In the US, right whales must be viewed at a safe distance. WDC biologists were influential in developing a 450m (500 yard) exclusion zone, keeping boaters away from whales to give them the best chance to survive. Not only does this reduce the risk of an accidental strike, but also ensures that the dense patches of plankton on which they feed are not disturbed, enabling right whales to graze safely through their fields of copepods.
Thanks to their efforts, there is hope for the more endangered North Atlantic right whales. In the past several years a small but notable increase in the population has been documented. The threats they face continue to be human induced, but while human activities may be a threat, human action can be a saving grace. From recycling to conserving energy, each additional activity protects the whales’ ocean habitat, giving them a fighting chance for survival. And a decision to turn off a light we don’t need is something we can all do.