Northern right whale dolphin

Lissodelphis borealis

Northern right whale dolphins are named after right whales for the simple reason that like their larger, whale namesakes, they also do not have a dorsal fin.

Northern right whale dolphins are known for their distinctive black and white colour pattern and their dark, smooth, shiny backs.  At sea, they are sometimes mistaken for herds of leaping fur seals or sea lions due to their dark, streamlined bodies.

Right whale dolphin illustration
Male Female Calf
Maximum length 3.1m 2.3m 1m
Maximum weight 115kg 115kg Unknown

IUCN conservation status: Least Concern

What do northern right whale dolphins look like?

Northern right whale dolphins have sleek, streamlined, slender bodies and look skinny.  They are mostly black with a white patch on the underside; there is another white patch on the underside of their flippers and one on the lower jaw.  Newborn baby northern right whale dolphins are black all over; they develop their distinctive markings when they are about a year old.  Males are generally larger than females.

Their backs are shiny black and smooth as they do not have a dorsal fin. The beak is short and the forehead sloping, the lower jaw protrudes beyond the upper jaw. Their flippers are small, slim and pointy and are close to their body giving the appearance that they don’t have flippers at all!  Their tails are also small and pointy.

What’s life like for a northern right whale dolphin?

Northern right whale dolphins are extremely sociable and gregarious; they live in large groups of 100 to 200. Groups of up to 3000 individuals have been seen. They often mix with other dolphin species such as Pacific white-sided dolphins, short-finned pilot whales or Risso's dolphins. In fact they have been seen associating with no fewer than 14 other marine mammal species in the North Pacific Ocean.

When swimming slowly they cause little disturbance to the surface water. They can also swim fast and travel at average speeds of 16 mph and can reach up to 25mph. Spectacular large groups can be seen, porpoising, side-slapping and belly-flopping; they are highly acrobatic swimmers and perform long, low leaps at high speed; they can leap more than 6m over the surface of the water. Northern right whale dolphins will sometimes bow-ride or surf the waves created by boats, especially when travelling in groups with other dolphin species who commonly bow-ride.

Northern right whale dolphins can dive for up to 6 minutes to feed on small fish, squids and octopuses in deep waters.

Male northern right whale dolphins become sexually mature at around 10 years old and females just before they are 10 years old.  Females are pregnant for about one year and give birth to a baby every two or more years.

Life expectancy for a wild northern right whale dolphin is thought to be about 42 years.

Their only predators are orcas and large sharks.

What do northern right whale dolphins eat?

Northern right whale dolphins have 37 to 54 pairs of small, cone-shaped teeth in each jaw. They eat squid, lantern fish, hake and various surface and midwater fish species.

Where do northern right whale dolphins live?

Northern Right Whale dolphins live in deep offshore oceanic waters of the cool-temperate and subarctic parts of the North Pacific Ocean. They are only found close to shore where deep-water is found close to the coast.

The distribution of northern right whale dolphins varies with the seasons. They usually migrate within their habitat as the water temperature changes. The dolphins move south during the colder winter and autumn months, then return north during the warmer spring and summer months.

Distribution map

Northern right whale dolphin distribution map
Life Expectancy
Years

Northern right whale dolphins need your help

The main threats...

  • Entanglement - One of the main threats to northern right whale dolphins is becoming entangled or captured in fishing nets and equipment such as driftnets, gillnets, and purse seines.

    The continued use of driftnets to catch billfish, sharks, squid, and tuna inside the Exclusive Economic Zones of North Pacific countries, and some continued illegal fishing on the high seas, results in the killing of unknown numbers of northern right whale dolphins each year.

  • Hunting - Small numbers of northern right whale dolphins are occasionally killed in the drive and harpoon hunts for small cetaceans off Japan.

  • Ocean noise - Underwater noise pollution impacts the behaviour of northern right whale dolphins as like all whales and dolphins, they rely on sound to communicate and echolocate.  Noise disturbance from ships and boats, as well as industrial and military activities, disturbs their ability to feed, communicate and navigate.

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