North Atlantic right whale
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. North Atlantic right whales came very close to extinction in the early 1900s and it is thought today that the eastern North Atlantic stock is now functionally extinct. North Atlantic right whales are one of the most endangered of the great whales (along with the North Pacific right whale) with a worldwide population of fewer than 500.
The North Atlantic right whale is notable for its huge head, which can be more than one quarter the total body length, and a strongly arched mouthline. It has horny growths called callosities mostly on the top of its lower head and lip. Whale lice live on these callosities and make them white, pink, yellow or orange. Individual animals are recognised by the shape of these callosities and other scars. The North Atlantic right whale has two blowholes and, as a result of their position, produces a characteristic V-shaped spout up to 5m high. It has a heavy, rotund body, black or dark grey, with white blotches on the belly. There is no dorsal fin and the long, broad flippers are paddle-shaped. Male right whales are also notable for having the largest testes in the world - each pair weighs about a tonne!
North Atlantic right whales swim slowly, yet are surprisingly acrobatic, they are known for breaching and slapping their flippers against the water when rolling over. They are playful, curious animals, and often poke and bump objects they find in the water. Socially-active groups can be heard moaning and bellowing at night around breeding areas. Mothers will sometimes swim on their back, cradling a new calf on their bellies with their huge flippers However females only give birth every 3 to 4 years. North Atlantic right whales live only in the northern hemisphere and never mix with southern right whales. Some North Atlantic right whales make annual migrations between winter breeding and calving grounds in warmer southern waters off the southeast US, and summer feeding grounds in cooler waters off New England and southeastern Canada.
The vast majority of North Atlantic right whales are found in the western North Atlantic, off the coasts of Canada and North America. The species is thought to be functionally extinct in the eastern North Atlantic with very rare sightings here probably being vagrants from the western population. North Atlantic right whales are threatened by habitat loss, human disturbance, entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with ships. They are currently listed on the IUCN Red List as Endangered (2008).