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Right Whales



















What is taxonomy?

It should be noted that the current right whale taxonomic classification is uncertain.

Right whales are "stocky" (short and fat), large, and black. They are easily identified because they have no dorsal fin, a highly arched jaw, and have a series of growths on their head called callosities. 

Interesting Facts:

  • Right whales were called right whales because whalers found the whales to be the "right" whales to hunt.  Whalers liked catching right whales because they are big, slow, and float when they are killed. Right whales were heavily whaled for many years.
  • Right whales are an endangered species and their populations generally remain small even though commercial hunting stopped nearly 100 years ago.

What should I know about right whales?

Where do right whales live?

Right whales prefer coastlines and sometimes large bays, but may spend a lot of time on the open sea. Northern and Southern hemisphere right whale sub-species are separated by the "tropical belt" roughly between the latitudes of 20°N and 20°S. 

How many right whales are there?

Not very many.  The Northern right whale populations are considered by some to be close to extinction while populations the Southern right whale are doing better with the largest groups seen off western Australia, South Africa, and Argentina.  You can read more about right whale stocks in the NMFS Alaska and Atlantic stock assessment reports.

How can I identify a right whale?

Right whales are large, rotund, black whales with large heads, long rostrums, and no dorsal fins.  They can grow up to 53 feet (16.2 meters) long.  Right whales have distinguishing callosities which are the best identification both for the species and for individual right whale. 

How well can a right whale hear or see?

It has been hard to research this question because right whales are too large to study in an oceanarium and are difficult to study in the open ocean.  It is thought that right whales probably have excellent hearing, especially at low frequencies, which is valuable in the dark ocean environment where vision is less useful. 

What do right whales eat?

Right whales are baleen whales, they filter their food through their long baleen plates. Right whales open their great mouths and graze along the surface of the water. Right whales mostly eat small crustaceans including copepods and small shrimp-like animals called euphausiids.

How do right whales have their young?

Right whales are probably old enough to mate around 8 years old. Females are pregnant for about 13 months and only get pregnant approximately every three to five years. Calves are born able to swim. A mother and her calf form a very close attachment.  The calf spends most of its time swimming close to its mother and is carried in the mother's "slip stream,"  the wake which develops as the mother swims.

How long do right whales live? How do they die?

Because of an absence of teeth (which can be used to estimate age in other mammals), it is difficult to tell how old right whales are when they die.  It is believed that right whales live at least 50 years.

Right whales die of natural causes and are sometimes preyed upon by killer whales.  Humans commercially hunted right whales for oil, meat, and apparel materials (for corset stays, umbrella ribs, buggy whips etc.) from the 17th to early 20th centuries.  Right whales may also be harmed by pollution, ship strikes, or entanglement in fishing gear.

Would you like to read more? Check out the National Marine Fisheries Service, Southeast Fisheries Science Center (SEFSC), Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary, with the New England Aquarium on a research tagging program of Northern Atlantic right whales?

Where can I find more information about right whales?

Books and the world wide web are excellent places to learn more about marine mammals. 


  • Leatherwood, Stephen. Reeves, Randall R. Foster, Larry.   The Sierra Handbook of Whales and Dolphins.  Sierra Club, San Francisco, CA.  1983.
  • Leatherwood, Stephen.  Reeves, Randall R. Perrin, William F.   Evans, William E.  Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises of the Eastern North Pacific and Adjacent Arctic waters; A Guide to their Identification.  Dover Publications, Inc., New York, NY.  1988.
  • Wynne, Kate. Folkens, Pieter. Guide to Marine Mammals of Alaska.  Alaska Sea Grant Program.  University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK.  1992. 

World Wide Web

There are many more sources to learn about cetaceans.   Check with MML's online library or your local librarian for her or his recommendations.

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This portion of the MML website is intended for a student audience and their educators.
Information within the education website should not be cited in scientific journals or publications.

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