Like other right whales, the North Atlantic Right Whale is readily distinguished from other whales by the callosities on its head, a broad back without a dorsal fin, and a long arching mouth that begins above the eye. The body of the whale is very dark grey or black, occasionally with some white patches on the belly. The right whale's callosities appear white, not due to skin pigmentation, but to large colonies of cyamids or whale lice. Adult right whales average in length and weigh up to 70 tons (63,500 kg); the largest measured have been long and 117 tons (106,500 kg). Females are larger than males and first give birth at age 9 or 10 after a yearlong gestation; the interval between births seems to have increased in recent years and now averages three to six years. Calves are long at birth. There is little data on their life span, but it is believed to be at least 50 years, and closely related species may live more than a century.
Right whales were so named because whalers thought they were the "right" whale to hunt. 40% of a right whale's body weight is blubber, which is of relatively low density. Consequently, unlike many other species of whale, deceased right whales float. Combined with the right whale's slowness through water they were easy to catch even for whalers equipped only with wooden boats and hand-held harpoons.
The Basques were the first to commercially hunt the North Atlantic Right Whale. They began doing so as early as the 11th century in the Bay of Biscay. The whales were hunted initially for their oil but, as meat preservation technology improved, the animal was also used for food. Basque whalers reached eastern Canada by 1530 and the shores of Todos os Santos Bay (in Bahia, Brazil) by 1602. The last Basque whaling voyages were made prior to the commencement of the Seven Year's War (1756-1763). A few unsuccessful attempts were made to revive the trade, but they all failed. Basque shore whaling continued sporadically into the 19th century.
Basques were replaced by the whalers from the new American colonies: the "Yankee whalers". Setting out from Nantucket, Massachusetts and Long Island, New York, the Americans were able to take up to 100 right whales some years. By 1750 the North Atlantic Right Whale was as good as extinct for commercial purposes and the Yankee whalers moved into the South Atlantic before the end of the 18th century.
As it became clear that stocks were nearly depleted, a worldwide total ban on right whaling was agreed upon in 1937. The ban was largely successful, although some whaling continued in violation of the ban for several decades. Madeira took its last two right whales in 1968.
There have been a smattering of sightings further east over the past few decades—several sightings were made close to Iceland in 2003. It is possible that these are the remains of a virtually extinct eastern Atlantic stock, but examination of old whalers records suggest that they are more likely to be strays from further west. However, a few sightings are regular between Norway, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, the Canary Islands, inside of the Mediterranean Sea, and even Italy and Sicily and at least the Norway individuals come from the Western stock.
Ocean Conservancy Launches Online Game to Educate Children and Ocean Enthusiasts About Endangered North Atlantic Right Whale
Oct 14, 2008; The Ocean Conservancy issued the following news release: Ocean Conservancy is pleased to announce the launch of a new interactive...