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Right Whales

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A southern right whale in waters off the Auckland Islands. Right whales were named by whalers who identified them as the “right” whale to kill on a hunt.



About Right Whales

Right whales are the rarest of all large whales. There are several species, but all are identified by enormous heads, which can measure up to one-third of their total body length.

Baleen Feeding

These whales' massive heads and jaws accommodate hundreds of baleen “teeth.” Rights and other baleen-feeding whales use a comblike strainer of baleen plates and bristles to ensnare tiny morsels of food as they swim. Right whales feed on zooplankton and other tiny organisms using baleens up to 8 feet long.

Southern and the two species of northern right whales live in temperate Atlantic or Pacific waters, often near the coast.

Whaling Target

Right whales were named by whalers who identified them as the “right” whale to kill on a hunt. These leviathans had enormous value for their plentiful oil and baleen, which were used for corsets, buggy whips, and other contrivances. Because of their thick blubber, right whales also float accommodatingly after they have been killed. Populations of these whales were decimated during the whaling heydays of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. During this period they came close to extinction.

Threats to Survival

Because females do not become sexually mature until ten years of age and give birth to a single calf after a yearlong pregnancy, populations grow slowly.

All species of right whales have enjoyed complete international protection since 1949. Southern right whales have shown some encouraging population growth since their protection. Northern right whales are the most at-risk of all large whales.


WATCH: A Magical Day with a Right Whale

National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry describes a magical but risky experience photographing an enormous right whale.