one year old and 28 feet long. Scientists haveestimated an average of approximately 12–13 birthsper year, about 1/3 of the births necessary to sustainthe species. Although they noted a record high of 31births in 2001, only one calf was born in the previousyear. Calf mortalities, from ship strikes and ﬁshinggear, reduce the overall reproduction, further con-tributing to problems of recovery in the right whale.
Range and Distribution
In the mid 1970s, researchers identiﬁed Florida andGeorgia coastal waters as a calving area for the rightwhale. Pregnant females, along with some juvenilesand adult males, leave their northeastern feedinggrounds sometime in October/November and come tothe southeastern calving area to have their young.Scientists and members of public sighting networksobserve them in the calving area from approximatelyDecember through March. Calves travel with theirmothers on the return trip to northeastern feedingand nursery areas in late winter and early spring.Late spring through fall, right whales feed inwaters off New England and Canada. The summerfeeding place for males and females without calves isan Atlantic Ocean area called Roseway Basin, southof Nova Scotia. The summer feeding and nursinggrounds for many mothers with ﬁrst-year calves isthe Bay of Fundy, just north of the U.S.-Canadaborder between Maine and Nova Scotia. Thesewaters have large, dense patches of zooplankton thatare required by right whales in order to sustain them-selves on such tiny prey items. Right whales leave thenortheastern feeding grounds by the end of fall.Scientists do not know where many of the males andnon-pregnant females go during the winter months,when pregant females and some others migrate to thecalving grounds off the southeastern U.S.North Atlantic right whales are closely related tothe southern right whales of the coastal waters offSouth America, Africa, and Australia. However, theyare separate species. Unlike the North Atlantic rightwhale, southern right whale populations haveincreased in numbers since whaling was banned. Infact, the southern right whale has recovered from anestimated population of a few hundred individuals inthe 1970s to 3,000–5,000 individuals presently.
Behavior and Threats
Herman Melville, author of
, warned asearly as 1851 that hunting right whales could causethe species to “vanish from the face of the earth.”Right whales were among the ﬁrst baleen whales toreceive international protection. The commercialharvest of right whales was banned internationally,ﬁrst by the League of Nations in 1935, and then bythe International Whaling Commission, which wasestablished in 1946. Even with this internationalprotection, North Atlantic right whale populationshave not recovered to safe population levels, andexperts consider this species of large whale as one ofthe most susceptible to extinction.Right whales have only one natural predator:killer whales. However, only 3% of right whales havescars caused by killer whale attacks. This means thathumans, principally through shipping, bothcommercial and military, and ﬁshing gear, pose thebiggest threat to right whale survival. Although shipsare no longer armed with harpoons, they may still bedeadly. Some ships, such as tankers and freighters,may be as long as a football ﬁeld and have propellersthat are 15 to 30 feet in diameter. Getting hit by aship this large can shatter ribs or jawbones, and thehuge propeller blades can shatter right whales’spines or slice their tails. Right whales may also
From 1980 to 1992, only 51 females wereknown to be reproductively active out of theestimated population of around 300.From 1999 to 2003, total human-caused mortality and serious injury to right whales,resulting from ﬁshery-related entanglements and ship strikes, was estimated at 2.6 per year. Eventhis small number is signiﬁcant in a populationas small as that of right whales and contributesto the potential for extinction of the species.