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 North Pacific Right Whale

Image Credit: NOAA

 North Pacific Right Whale
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 National Marine Sanctuaries Where North Pacific Right Whales Can Be Found:
  Olympic Coast
Cordell Bank
Gulf of the Farallones
Monterey Bay
Channel Islands

 Related Environmental Issues:
  Point Source - Oil Spills
Non-Point Source - Runoff
El Niño
Climate Change

 Activities Related to North Pacific Right Whales:

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Scientific Name: Eubalaena japonica

Category: Cetaceans

Right Whales have no teeth. Instead they have plates that hang from their upper jaw that are made of the same material as human fingernails and hair. These fringed plates help the whales filter their food from the water and are called baleen. The average whale has about 225 baleen plates on each side of their upper jaw. The upper and lower jaws are curved to allow space for the extremely long baleen. The whales are black in color with patches of white on their underbelly, but some albino whales have been reported. The Right Whale does not have a dorsal (top) fin or throat grooves. It does have a large head that is about ¼ of their body length and the head is covered with patches of rough, horny skin called callosities. These occur mostly near the eyes, blowholes, on the chin and lips. Their heads are hairier than most other whales and they have two blowholes and have short, broad flippers. Fishermen traditionally considered these whales the "right" whales to hunt because they swim slowly along coasts and were easy to catch. This is how they got their name. The Right Whale has the thickest layer of blubber of all the large whales. It makes up 36-45% of their total body weight and this allows them to float in the water after they die, making them easier for the fishermen to haul onboard ships. The Right Whales were hunted for their oil and their baleen which was used to make buggy whips, corsets, and other items requiring stiff forms. They were hunted during the 18-20th centuries almost to extinction, but there is evidence that they were the first hunted whales, possibly as early is the 10th century.

Right Whales are found in all the world's oceans from the temperate to the subpolar regions, but in very small numbers. As with all other baleen whales, the Right Whales move to higher latitudes in the summer for feeding and return to the temperate regions in the winter for breeding. Their movements are driven by following their food. Right Whales in the western North Atlantic are few in number (300) and almost extinct in the eastern North Atlantic. In the Eastern North Pacific, there are less than 30 Right Whales and this is possibly the smallest whale population in the world. In the Western North Pacific, numbers are also very small, but unknown. They are one of the rarest whale species in the world. Right Whales do not cross the equator and so there is another population in the Southern Hemisphere (3,000-4,000). Whales everywhere collide with ships, causing serious injury or death. Scars from these accidents may appear bright orange because this is the color of the parasites that infest these whale wounds. This species is also part of the bycatch, getting caught in the fishing nets and longline hooks. In the North Atlantic, the Right Whales are at greater risk of colliding with ships and becoming entangled in fishing lines because they are slow swimmers, spend time at the surface and they live within the world's busiest shipping lanes. In March of 2009, scientists were able to sedate a Right Whale that had been entangled in fishing nets and remove 90% of the net and the whale survived. Ocean pollution and oil drilling are also damaging to Right Whale populations.

Adult males are 13.7-16.7m (45-55 feet) and weigh up to 90,700kg (100 tons)! The females are larger than the males and this is typical of whales in the baleen family. They can dive to 300m (1000 feet) and stay submerged for up to 40 minutes. Males mature when they are 9-11m (35-40 feet) long. Females mature at about 11-13.7m (40-45 feet) which 9-10 years. After mating, the female gives birth to one calf about 12 months later. They move to shallower coastal waters to give birth. At birth, the calves are 4.5-6m (15-20 feet) and weigh 1500kg (1.65 tons). The calves are grey to blue in color when they are born and nurse until they are about one year old. The female give birth every three years and returns to the same breeding grounds only when they will give birth again. These mating facts indicate the slow growth of the whale population. The average life span for the Right Whale is 70 years.

Right Whales are filter feeders and eat shrimp-like animals called krill and other tiny organisms. The whales are called skimmers and are also known as the "grazers of the sea", because they swim with their mouth open along the surface of the water, constantly filtering food. Right Whales are loners, with the only social bond being between mother and calf. Their predators are Orca Killer Whales and large sharks.

Whale tours off the coast of North America from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in Canada are good places to see the Right Whales, but the tourist traffic may be disturbing the North Atlantic population and the tours may be closely regulated in the future. All Northern Right Whale populations are on the endangered species list of the IUCN, even after years of protective status. The Southern Right Whales which have larger populations are classified as "least concerned" on the IUCN Redlist.

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