The northern right whale is the most endangered marine mammal in US waters. The name comes from its tendency to float when dead, thus for whalers this was the “right” whale to hunt. The hunting of northern right whales was banned in 1931. Today there are estimated to be only about 300-350 of these whales alive. The main dangers for right whales in the 21st century are strikes from ships and entanglement in derelict fishing gear (mostly commercial ropes and nets).
Although right whales are large (up to 55 feet in length), they do not have teeth. Instead, they feed by filtering plankton (small marine animals) out of the ocean by forcing water through large plates of baleen in their mouths. Right whales have several characteristics that make them look different from other whales. When a right whale breathes, it has a split blowhole, so it sends up a V-shaped spray (called a blow) of air and water droplets. This blow may reach 16 feet into the air. The northern right whale does not have a dorsal fin (on its back). An individual right whale can be identified by the unique pattern of callous growths, called callosities, on its head. These callosities appear white because of the presence of small shrimp-like creatures which are often referred to as "whale lice".
By mid-November of each year, pregnant right whales begin to migrate southward from their feeding grounds in the northwestern Atlantic to their calving grounds off southern Georgia and northeastern Florida. Between December and March, the females give birth to their 18-foot long babies in these warmer waters. The whales can sometimes be spotted from the shore of northeast Florida as they may approach within one mile of the coastline.
Several northeast Florida residents are helping to protect right whales by participating in the right whale volunteer monitoring network, which is coordinated locally by Joy Hampp. Daily, between January and March, small groups of trained volunteers head out to designated beachfront locations where they scan the horizon for signs of right whales. If a whale is sighted, the location is reported to the Marine Resources Council (MRC) in Melbourne, FL. If the whale is moving north or south, the sighting is also reported to other volunteer groups so that as much information as possible can be gathered about the whale. The presence of a calf, dolphins and other whales (like humpbacks) is also reported. If possible, photographs of the whale(s) are taken in order to try and identify the individual animal(s).
Right whale sightings are used by scientists to learn more about the right whale population and its biology. However, the sightings are also reported to the US Coast Guard so that any ships in the area can be notified about the presence of whales. This is an effort to decrease the number of ships that accidentally hit right whales. If you spot a right whale, please report the sighting by calling the MRC at 1-888-979-4253 or the state’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute at 1-888-404-3922. Remember that it is illegal to approach within 500 yards of a right whale.
Right whale mother and calf
Right Whale Resources
- FWCC's right whale web site
- NOAA Fisheries right whale web site
- 4th Grade right whale curriculum (other whales and dolphins, too!)