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Frequently Asked Questions
Students Ask and Experts Answer
Contributed by Whale Expert Anne Smrcina
Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary

Ways to use in the Classroom


Why do they call it the right whale?

The right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) got its common name from the fact that it was "the right whale" to hunt. This is because it had large amounts of blubber or fat. It was very slow and easy to chase, and it floated when it was killed making it easy to handle.

Why did people want whale blubber?

Oil produced from blubber was used in lamps and as a lubricant. Blubber contains over 60% oils, and was used in the manufacture of margarine, lard and shortening.

What does a right whale look like?

Northern right whales are black with variable gray patches on their throats and bellies. Large amounts of blubber give the right whale a particularly rotund appearance.They have large heads (more than one quarter of the body length), a narrow upper jaw and a curved lower jaw. The right whale has no dorsal fin, has extremely long baleen plates in its arched upper jaw (about 7 feet long), and reaches a length of about 60 feet. Right whales have tough white patches of skin on their heads called callosites.

How much does a right whale weigh?

Adult whales which average 12-16.5 meters (40-55 feet), can weigh up to 63.5 metric tons (139,700 pounds).

What are callosites?

A striking feature of the right whale is its pattern of callosities, which are patches of thickened skin often covered by whale lice -- a type of crustacean. These white patches on its head, over its eyes, and around its mouth are used by researchers to identify individual whales. Each whale has a different pattern. But since a right whale doesn't often get much of its head out of the water, it makes it hard for the researcher to identify each whale. It often takes quite some time (sometimes using many photographs) to make a match.

Do right whales have teeth?

Right whales are one of a group of whales that don't have teeth. They are called baleen whales. Some other whales with baleen include gray whales, bowheads,clue whales and minke whales. These are often referred to as the "great whales".

What is baleen?

Baleen is a fringed, mustache-like material found in their mouths. Instead of having teeth, the right whale draws in its food in a large quantity of water. The food is trapped behind the baleen when the excess water is expelled.

Why were whale hunters interested in baleen?

One right whale could yield as much as 540 kilograms (1188 pounds) of baleen. Manufactures fashioned the strong and highly flexible baleen into buggy whips, umbrella stays, skirt hoops, strapping for beds, brushes and caning for chairs. The baleen from one whale would pay the expenses for the entire voyage.

What kind of a spout does the right whale blow hole make?

The blow holes of right whales are divided on the surface, forming two holes typical of baleen whales. Visible from a distance, the spout is identified by a nearly vertical "V" shape.

Do right whales have hair?

If you look closely, sparse hair appears in the tips of the chin and upper jaw. It is believed that whales once had hair but they became more hydrodynamically designed as they evolved into water animals.

How do whales breath?

Right whales are voluntary breathers meaning they have to consciously breath in and out (it's not an involuntary reaction like we have). They swim to the surface to draw in air through their blowholes. Whales have limited breathing functions through their mouths. When a whale inhales, it fills up its lungs to capacity each tie and then exhales 90% of its air supply with each breath. Humans exhale only 25% of their lung capacity. The whales exhale through the blowholes, a whole exhale in less than half a second and sometimes at over 300 mp, while inhaling takes place in a leisurely second. They can hold their breath for up to 30 minutes if they have to.

How do whales sleep?

Whales don't sleep like us -- they are voluntary breathers meaning they have to consciously breath in and out. Studies on dolphins have shown that they rest one-half of their brains at a time -- so they are "sleeping" at half speed. We don't know much about this lower state of awareness in the great whales. Perhaps this is happening during "logging" behavior (when whales are seen quietly resting at the surface with little movement except for an occasional blow). It would seem that the whales are going into a deep rest rather than a deep sleep.

Did whales once have arms and legs?

It was thought that once very long ago the whales had arms and legs. Today whales have adapted to life in water. A strong tail replaced the legs. The tail has two "wings" or flukes that developed on the sides of the tail. Whales have flippers. If you could see inside the flipper you would find that it has five fingers and is surprising similar to the human hand.

How do right whales stay warm in the cold ocean waters?

Right whales have developed several mechanisms for regulating heat loss. They have a very thick blubber layer (up to one and a half feet in depth) which keeps the heat in and prevents it from escaping to the outside. In addition, the right whale's body is relatively compact with few appendages thereby reducing the surface to volume ratio. With less surface, more heat can be kept inside. In addition, whales also have decreased breathing rates, which adds to their ability to maintain body heat without expelling it (via warmed air) to the environment.

How do they cool down when they are in the warmer southern calving grounds?

When they have to get rid of excess heat (perhaps when they're down in southern waters), they have some sections of the body where blood vessels are closer to the surface (flippers and tail) and blood circulation can be increased for release of heat.

Diet and Feeding Behaviors:

How much food does a whale eat in one day?

The right whale may be eating about 2,625 pounds of copepods (a type of zooplankton) a day when it's in Cape Cod Bay or another feeding ground.

What is a copepod?

Copepods are small crustaceans that look like tiny shrimp with large antennae. The largest of the copepods (but still very small), Calanus finmarchicus or Cal fin, is the right whale's favorite food, although they also eat other types of copepods including Pseudocalanus.

Where do the whales find the copepods?

These copepods do not stay in one place in the water column. Unlike phytoplankton which stay close to the surface, the copepods migrate -- down during the day and up towards the surface in the late afternoon and evening.
Cape Cod Bay is very shallow (deepest depths are in the 200 foot range, and most areas are much less). Therefore, copepods may reach the surface late in the day where surface feeding or skim feeding may occur. During mid-day, the whales usually have to dive for their food. When the whales move on up to the Bay of Fundy later in the summer, depths are greater (600-800 feet), the copepods usually don't make it to the surface, and skim feeding is rarely seen.

How does the whale eat?

As the whale swims, water passes through the opening at the center of the whale's mouth (there is no baleen here). Water flows into the mouth and out through the baleen. Any small animals, such as copepods, juvenile krill, and other small zooplankton, are caught in the fine hairs. When the whale has collected enough food, the short but thick tongue pushes out the excess water, closes off the opening and sweeps the food from the baleen plates.

How do the whales find their food?

Baleen whales have a remarkable ability to locate dense patches of plankton in a vast ocean. Scientists still don't know how the whales do this. Right whales spend four to five months a year in northern Atlantic waters increasing their amount of blubber. The blubber serves as both insulation and energy reserves necessary for surviving potentially food-scarce winters.

Are the southern calving grounds rich in food?

Compared to the northern waters, there is little food off the southeast coast, and feeding behaviors have not been recorded while right whales are the calving area.

What kind of digestive system does this whale have?

Whales have three major chambers that make up their stomachs. Interestingly, this type of stomach is very similar to animals called ungulates, which include cows, sheep, camels and deer.

How much food does a right whale eat?

These large mammals, eating some of the smallest prey, need upwards of a million calories as day to maintain body functions. That amounts to about 2,000 kilograms (4,400 pounds) of plankton daily.

How does that compare to what humans eat?

A million calories to a 50 ton animal is equivalent to 1,500 calories to a 150 pound person. So the whale actually has a more efficient system than the human.

Habitat, Range and Migration:

Where are right whales found?

Finding right whales throughout the year is a task that has proven difficult because of the low number of whales, the enormous size of their range, and the tremendous distances they swim during the year. Although scientists understand the basic seasonal migration patterns, many gaps remain, and researchers rarely know the location of the majority of whales at any one time. Today, researchers know of only five locations where they are found. These areas include the Georgia and Florida coasts, Stellwagen Bank and Cape Cod Bay, the Great South Channel east of Cape Cpd, the Bay of Fundy, and the Scotian Shelf.

Why is it difficult to know where to find the whales?

Because whales are animals of the sea, we can't easily see them. Spotting them from boats is not easy because of their dark color and lack of a dorsal fin.

How do researchers know about right whale population size?

To track the whales, researchers had to first learn how to identify and recognize individuals. Fortunately, right whales are easy to tell apart because of the thick skin patches called callosites on their heads. They also have distinctive scars from encounters with boats and ships. This ability to identify individuals helps to determine whether whales return to the same area every year, which females have given birth, how whales are related to each other, and which ones may have died. Pictures of the whales are cataloged and kept for reference at the New England Aquarium for all researchers to use.

Can right whales be tagged so their movements can be monitored?

Scientists use a couple kinds of tags to monitor these whales. One tag uses satellite transmissions to monitor them. The short battery life of the transmitters and the overall expense limits their usefulness.. Another tag sends a radio signal but can only be monitored from a boat or a plane.

What do we know for sure about where they are found?

The 300 or so right whales now found along the east coast of the United States have certain "home bases" for particular times of the year. These areas include the Georgia and Florida coasts, Stellwagen Band and Cape Cod Bay, the Great South Channel east of Cape Cod, the Bay of Fundy, and the Scotian Shelf.

When are they found in these different habitat areas?

During the winter, pregnant females head down to the Florida/Georgia coastline where they deliver their calves -- this is the only known calving ground for the species. Cape Cod Bay and Stellwagen Bank attract whales during the February through April time period (although over the course of the past 20 years, right whales have been seen in these waters in almost every month, but often just one or two at a time). April and May see the whales moving out into the Great South Channel between Cape Cod and Georges Bank. Later on in the summer and early fall, right whales head up to Canadian waters (Bay of Fundy, Browns Bank) for feeding and breeding.

Where do the males and nonpregnant females go in the winter?

One of the biggest mysteries is where the males and nonpregnant females go during the winter months. They leave the northern feeding grounds but do not show up in the Florida/Georgia waters during the time that the pregnant females are there. At this point no one knows where they go.

Reproduction and Young:

How old does a whale need to be before they give birth?

Females reach reproductive maturity between seven and ten years old, although it is known that one female gave birth at five years.

How often do females reproduce?

Because a female will nurse her young calf for 10 to 12 months she tends to require one to three years to recover her energy between calvings. Remember that a whale's gestation period (the amount of time she is pregnant) is about one year.

If females can give birth every one to three years, why isn't the population growing?

While collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear are partially to blame for the slow recovery of the right whale population, scientists are also investigating whether a decreasing birth rate is a factor.

What factors can lead to a decreasing birth rate?

Because there was such a small population of whales, only about 100 northern right whales left in 1935, there wasn't a lot of genetic diversity in the species. Low diversity can lead to a low birth rate. Some researchers think that all of our northern right whale population may be descendants of only 2 or 3 females.

Where do whales go to give birth?

Calving takes place during the winter off the coasts of Georgia and northern Florida.

Do the male whales help raise the calves?

Males don't participate at all in raising the calves. Researchers have rarely spotted males in the calving grounds. The only time they have seen males and females interact is during courtship.

Where does courtship and breeding take place?

Researchers have observed what they consider to be courtship behavior throughout the year from the Florida coast to the Bay of Fundy. Most intense courtship activity has been observed in the Scotian Shelf during August and September.

Do they mate with the same partner for life?

No, we don't think there is any pairing up in baleen whales.


Why are there so few right whales?

Right whales were hunted heavily along the east coast of North America as far back as the 16th century. They were easy whales to hunt because their feeding habits brought them close to the surface and near to the shore.

When was hunting the right whale outlawed?

Right whales were given protection in 1935.

In 1935, how big was the right whale population?

Scientists estimated that in 1935 there were only about 100 right whales left in the North Atlantic Ocean. Many feared that the northern right whale would become extinct.

Has the population recovered since 1935?

The population along the North American coastline has a population of only 300 to 350 individuals. Before the 15th century and the era of intensive whaling it is estimated that there was a population of over 100,000.

Why isn't the right whale population growing?

We think there are four main factors why the population size isn't increasing. First, collisions with ships using the same routes for traveling that the whales occupy. Second, the whales suffer greatly from entanglement in certain types of fishing gear. Next, coastal marine habitats have been degrading from effects of expanding human populations. And last, general disturbance from ocean vessels.

Who helps free the whales tangled in fish nets and equipment?

There is a group led by the
Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, MA, who has successfully freed several whales over the years.

Who studies and protects the whales in their southern calving grounds?

A group of agencies (called the Southeast United States Implementation Team for the Recovery of the Northern Right Whale) helps coordinate right whale recovery activities throughout the Southeast. The team is made up of representatives from the
Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and the Port Authority.

Who watches over the whales so they avoid collisions with ships?

The Implementation Team has also developed an early warning system to help reduce the number of vessel collisions.

How does an early warning system work to keep ships from colliding with whales?

The New England Aquarium makes daily flights over the calving grounds from December to March, and forwards the location of right whales to ships passing through the area.

How can individuals help in the fight to save the northern right whales?

One way that individuals can help is by sponsoring a whale. There are three right whale sponsorship programs in North America. The New England Aquarium, the primary research organization for saving the right whale has a noational sponsorship program which raises funds to partially support this research effort. In addition, two other agencies are working with the New England Aquarium. The Ocean Society in Atlanta, Georgia and the East Coast Ecosystems in Freeport, Nova Scotia both have adoption programs in place.