Right Whale Research




North Atlantic right whales, Eubalaena glacialis, are among the rarest of the baleen whale species. Distinct populations of right whales were scattered across the oceans of the world until they were decimated by heavy and consistent whaling. Right whales became fully protected from commercial whaling in 1949 through the International Convention for the regulation of whaling. In 1970, these whales became listed as an endangered species. Today, they are classified as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.

These are large whales, up to 17m. (56 feet) in length and may weigh up to 70 tons. Up to one third of their body length is taken up by their massive head and long, curved mouth line that supports a massive rack of baleen. Each baleen plate is up to 3m (8 feet) long and very narrow. The fringe along the inside edge of the baleen is extremely fine, allowing right whales to filter microscopic organisms called zooplankton, from the water.

Large broad flukes help push the rotund body through dense patches of zooplankton, even with the extra drag of an open mouth. Paddle-like flippers increase maneuverability for feeding and social behaviors. Not built for speed, right whales have no dorsal fin on the back. Over most of the body, the skin is smooth and black. Rough outcroppings of calcified skin can be found on the top of the head, around the blowholes, chin, jawline and above the eyes. Collectively known as callosities, these patches create a perfect home for cyamids or whale lice. Dense colonies of these invertebrates make callosities appear white or tan. A different species of cyamid live on the callosities of very young or very sick animals. These cyamids are orange in color, causing the callosities of the whale to appear orange rather then white. Because the callosities do not change over the lifetime of a whale, the callosity pattern can be used to identify individuals.

Several mysteries about right whale seasonal movements still remain. We do know that they generally move between rich feeding grounds and warmer calving grounds. However, in late fall, the whales almost disappear, with a few reports from offshore areas such as Jeffrey’s Ledge off Northern Massachusetts and off of Cape May, New Jersey. Pregnant females arrive off of the south-eastern U.S. to calve throughout the winter (December-March). The remainder of the population either visits Cape Cod Bay or is not sighted during this time of year. Researchers believe that this “missing” part of the population moves offshore. As spring arrives, the right whales take advantage of the waters of Cape Cod Bay and the Great South Channel to feed on zooplankton. The whales continue to move northward as they feed off of Southern Canada during the summer and early fall. These waters, which stay cold throughout the summer, are known to be extremely productive. “Courtship groups” and social behaviors are commonly seen here.

The right whale population in the North Atlantic is currently estimated to be 336 individuals. Although protected from hunting, the population still carries heavy losses from entanglements and ship strikes. Since 2017, 34 mortalities have been recorded, and 16 live free-swimming non-stranded whales have been documented with serious injuries from entanglements or vessel strikes. Low reproductive rates also contribute to the slow recovery of this species; during the 2021 season, 18 new calves were recorded; one of those was struck and killed in February 2021. In 2020, only ten new calves were recorded; one of those was struck and killed in June 2020. In 2019 there were seven births. No births were recorded in 2018.

Over the past 30 years, researchers at CCS have worked to learn more about right whales, their use of Cape Cod Bay and their habitat requirements. Our current research includes aerial surveillance, habitat and food resource monitoring and investigation into the acoustic behavior of right whales.

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