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Commonly Asked Questions

Where is this animal at Georgia Aquarium?
We do not have one in our collection. However, the North Atlantic right whale is the state marine mammal of Georgia, and are visitors to our Coast!

How can I learn more about the plight of North Atlantic right whales?
Here are some resources to start your research:


Range / Habitat

  • Found in coastal and shelf waters, as well as offshore.
  • Occurs from Florida to Nova Scotia and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, though occasionally observed as far north as Iceland and Norway, and as far south as the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Some individuals spend spring, summer, and fall months in waters from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia, although the whereabouts of a portion of the population during this time period are unknown.
  • In the winter months, many juveniles and pregnant females move to the calving grounds off the coasts of Georgia and Florida. A possible winter breeding ground was also recently discovered on Jordan’s Basin in the Gulf of Maine.
  • Not all right whales visit all habitat areas each year, and for many months in the wintertime only a small portion of the population is accounted for in either the southeast US or Cape Cod Bay.
  • Right whales use of the U.S. mid-Atlantic coast is not well understood, it is considered a migratory corridor, but little is known of the exact route.
  • Used to inhabit waters along the coast of Europe and North Africa, but was eliminated by whalers.

Physical Characteristics

  • Lacks a dorsal fin, has a broad back and paddle-shaped flippers, as well as a huge head and a strongly-arched mouth line.
  • Black in color with varying amount of white on the underside.
  • Baleen plates in its mouth, numbering between 200 and 260 per side, are huge: measuring up to 6 feet (1.8 m) long.  Baleen is made of a material that is similar to human fingernails in that it is stiff but flexible.
  • The head and rostrum have black patches of raised and roughed skin called callosities and are located in the same locations as facial hair on human males. The callosities are covered by small white crustaceans called Cyamids, or whale lice, and give the callosity its white or cream-colored appearance. Each right whale is identifiable by its unique callosity pattern.
  • Produces a distinctive V-shaped spout, or “blow,” when it exhales. 
  • The average length of a newborn calf is 13 feet (4 m) with average weight around 2200 lbs. (1000 kg).
  • Adults are commonly 43 to 53 feet (13-16 m) in length and can weigh up to 157,000 lbs. (71,000 kg).
  • Females are somewhat larger than males.
  • Largest recorded was 56 feet (17 m) in length, weighing 200,000 lbs. (90,000 kg).

Diet / Feeding

  • Diet consists mostly of a type of zooplankton that is a 4 mm-long copepod called Calanus finmarchicus.
  • Feeds by swimming slowly with its mouth wide open skimming through the water, filtering prey continuously through its baleen plates.

Reproduction / Growth

  • Right whales communicate to each other through bellowing sounds and moans.
  • Hearing range of 12-22kHz (low frequencies).
  • Mating is thought to occur in the Gulf of Maine during the winter months.  During mating, whales form courtship groups where numerous males (from 3 to 30+) compete to mate with a single focal female. 
  • Females may mate with more than one male in succession or with two males simultaneously.
  • Females are pregnant for about a year and most give birth to a single calf.
  • Most young are born at the southern end of the whales' north-south migration routes, off the coast of Georgia and Florida, in the winter months.
  • The calf is about 13 feet (4 m) in length at birth. It is usually weaned and independent of the mother towards the end of its first year, although separations as early as six to eight months have been documented. The calf will reach sexual maturity on average at 9 years old (range from 4 to 20 years). Although sexual behavior is observed all year round, the female gives birth only every 3 to 5 years. It is believed that copulation in seasons other than winter is social in nature. Recently newborn calves (two) have been documented in northern waters of New England.

Conservation Status

  • “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List.
  • Listed in Appendix I of CITES.
  • The species is listed as “Endangered” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, Georgia’s Endangered Wildlife Act and Canada’s Species at Risk Act.
  • Estimated between 400-500 individuals remaining.
  • In 1935 the North Atlantic right whale was identified for international protection as its numbers had dwindled to less than 100 individuals.
  • Years passed with only a few sightings and one accidental take in the Gulf of St. Lawrence by whalers operating out of Newfoundland. It was thought that the right whale was near extinction.
  • Finally, in January of 1955, an aerial photograph was taken of Cape Cod Bay and it confirmed that this species was still alive.
  • Twenty five years later (in 1980) scientists discovered further evidence of the whale’s presence, this time in the Bay of Fundy, Canada. This included mother and calf pairs and later a migratory pattern emerged that led researchers to the east coast of northeast Florida and southern Georgia in 1984 during the winter months where the primary calving ground was found.
  • The greatest threats to the species are collisions with ships and entanglements in fishing gear. Extensive efforts over the last decade have resulted in a number of regulations made by governments following discussions with marine industries, conservation groups and private citizens to reduce the potential of both hazards.

Additional Information

  • Sometimes referred to as the “northern right whale.”
  • There are three species of right whales, the North Atlantic, the North Pacific (thought to be the rarest of the species) and the southern right whale.
  • Can live up to 70 years, possibly over 100 years.
  • Travels singly or in small temporary groups.
  • Occasionally breaches (leaps out of the water), lob-tails (slaps its tail on the surface of the water) and spy-hops (orients itself vertically with head and eyes out of the water).
  • Occasionally, it is curious enough to approach boats.
  • When commercial whale hunting began in the 11th century, the right whale was the “right” whale to hunt because they were slow and easy to catch, floated when dead and yielded a large amount of oil for their size. They were hunted for their oil, meat, and baleen (used for corset stays, umbrella ribs, buggy whips etc.) from the 17th to early 20th centuries.
  • Became the official state marine mammal of Georgia in 1985.

Sources

The Northern Right Whale, From Whaling to Watching. Georgia Department of Natural Resources, 1997.
www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/cetaceans/rightwhale_northern.htm
www.new-brunswick.net/new-brunswick/whales/rightwhale.html