The North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis, Müller, 1776) is a species belonging to the Balaenidae family.
From a systematic point of view it belongs to:
Species E. glacialis.
The terms are synonyms:
– Balaena biscayensis Eschricht, 1860;
– Balaena cisarctica Cope, 1865;
– Balaena eubalaena Gray, 1871;
– Balaena euskariensis Real, 1890;
– Balaena glacialis Bonnaterre, 1789;
– Balaena glacialis Borowski, 1781;
– Balaena glacialis Müller, 1776;
– Balaena glacialis subsp. glacialis Müller, 1776;
– Balaena islandica Brisson, 1762;
– Balaena islandica Gmelin, 1788;
– Balaena mediterranea Gray, 1870;
– Balaena mysticetus subsp. islandica Kerr, 1792;
– Balaena nordcaper Lacépède, 1804;
– Balaena svendenborgii (Lilljeborg, 1868);
– Balaena swedenborgi (Lilljeborg, 1868);
– Balaena tarentina Capellini, 1877;
– Balaena vanbenedeniana Fischer, 1881;
– Balaena vanbenediana Capellini, 1873;
– Baloena glacialis Robineau, 1989;
– Eubalaena glacialis subsp. glacialis;
– Hunterius svendenborgii (Lilljeborg, 1868);
– Hunterius swedenborgii Lilljeborg, 1867;
– Hunterius temminckii Gray, 1864;
– Macleayius britannicus Gray, 1870.
Geographic Distribution and Habitat –
Eubalaena glacialis is one of three species belonging to the genus Eubalaena, all previously classified as a single species.
These whales almost all live in the northwestern Atlantic Ocean. In the spring, summer, and fall, they forage in areas off the coast of Canada and the northeastern United States, ranging from New York state to Nova Scotia. Especially popular feeding areas are the Bay of Fundy and Cape Cod Bay. In the winter, they move south to Georgia and Florida to give birth.
In recent decades there have been some sightings of this species further east – we recall, for example, those which occurred in 2003 near Iceland. It is likely that these specimens are the last survivors of the virtually extinct eastern Atlantic population, but examination of the records of former whalers suggests that they are more likely specimens from the west. Some sightings have taken place in Norway, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, the Canary Islands and perhaps in Sicily and we know with certainty that at least the individuals sighted in Norway come from the western population.
Its preferred habitat is in shallow waters near the coast in bays and peninsulas. Its annual cycle occupies two types of habitat; in summer it moves towards the cold waters of the North Atlantic rich in zooplankton. In winter, pregnant females migrate to subtropical waters and deliver there.
In the Bay of Fundy (Canada), whales can be observed in summer and autumn in areas where the average density of Calanus finmarchicus, (the main prey of this species), is 1139/m³ (Woodley and Gaskin, 1996). Females migrate in winter to subtropical waters (Florida and Georgia) and births take place there. To do this, they choose areas with a depth between 13 and 19 meters and a sea temperature between 13 and 16 °C (Garrison, 2007). A portion of the population remains in the waters of Cape Cod Bay, while the rest of the population is unknown where they are going.
In winter, they migrated to the Bay of Biscay, in waters located between the archipelagos of the Azores and Madeira islands and the northwest coast of Africa. In summer they go to the seas located between Iceland, the Svalbard Islands and the coasts of Norway. During the summer they ascend towards the North Atlantic, following the French and Atlantic coast of Ireland, passing through the Hebrides, towards Iceland and Norway where they feed. This can be deduced from the phenology of the catches of the first decades of the 1900s (Brown, 1986) as in those Nordic countries they show a peak presence in the month of June. In Ireland the captures were concentrated in the first half of June and preceded the captures made in the Scottish bases in the Hebrides (Fairley, 1981) which were concentrated in the second half of June and July. So it follows that the whales were formerly off the coast of Ireland.
The Eubalaena glacialis is easily distinguishable from the other whales by the callosities present on their head, by the broad back devoid of dorsal fin and by the long arched profile of the mouth, which begins above the eye.
The body of this whale is very dark gray or black, occasionally with some white spots on the belly. Right whale calluses appear white, not due to skin pigmentation, but due to the presence of large colonies of cyamids or whale lice.
This cetacean usually measures from 11 to 17 meters in length, and weighs up to over 60 tons; the largest measured specimen was 18.2 meters long and weighed 106.5 tons. Females are larger than males.
In the mouth there are plates, which take the name of baleen which are used as a filter to expel water from the mouth, retaining the small animals they feed on.
Each baleen is composed of a substance made of keratin which gives it a certain elasticity. The baleen plates are derived from a modification of the epidermis, they also contain small percentages of a bone mineral: hydroxyapatite, with traces of manganese, copper, boron, iron and calcium.
The baleen plates are arranged in two parallel rows resembling the thick teeth of hair combs; they are fixed to the jaw of the whale.
Its breath has a “V” shape and often the left jet is higher than the right and reaches a height of 4 meters.
The whales of the species Eubalaena glacialis, apart from the mating activities carried out by groups of a single female and several males, the so-called SAG (Surface Active Group), seem less active than the subspecies of the southern hemisphere. However, this could be due to the dramatic difference in the number of surviving individuals, particularly the hatchlings which tend to be more inquisitive and playful than the adults, and the small amount of observations. They have also been known to interact with other fin whales, especially humpback or bottlenose whales.
Females give birth for the first time at the age of nine or ten after a year’s gestation; the interval between births appears to have increased since the 1990s and now averages three to six years. The young are 4.0-4.6 m long at birth and weigh about 1,400 kg.
There is only limited data available on their life expectancy, but it is believed that it is at least 50 years and that closely related species can live more than a century.
Ecological Role –
Specimen records of Eubalaena glacialis are available online. Many effective automated methods are used to detect and classify their calls, such as signal processing, data mining, and machine learning techniques.
This cetacean feeds on copepods and other small invertebrates such as krill, pteropods, and larval barnacles, usually by slowly grazing patches of concentrated prey on or below the ocean surface.
Sei whales and basking sharks (sometimes also minke whales) are in positions of food competition and have been known to feed in the same areas, swimming alongside each other but no conflicts have been observed between these species.
Eubalaena glacialis has been persecuted for four main reasons:
– for its living habits near the coast;
– for her buoyancy when dead;
– because it swims slowly;
– for having a greater fat layer (representing 36-45% of the total weight) than any other species.
Thus due to its docile nature, slow surface behaviors, diet, coastal tendencies and high fat content, it has been an easy prey for humans since ancient times. Producing high yields of whale oil, these whales were once a prime target for Basque whalers.
Today the main threats to the species are:
– Collisions with ships: 7% have signs of injuries caused by ship propellers and about 20% of deaths are due to collisions with ships. Of the 45 fatalities recorded in the period 1970-1999, 35.5% were due to collisions with ships (Knowlton and Kraus, 2001). The great buoyancy of this species makes it difficult to dive in response to an approaching vessel. Furthermore, their ability to maneuver during ascent to the surface is limited (Nowacek et al., 2001).
– Reduced population size: DNA analysis has shown that genetic variability is reduced, suggesting lower fertility, fecundity, and pup survival rates (Schaeff et al., 1997).
– Habitat productivity: A study has suggested that the current population may represent the carrying capacity of today’s habitat. This seems unlikely as there is no evidence of oceanographic changes (Kraus et al., 2007).
– Ingestion of waste: when it feeds on the surface it can ingest floating waste (Kraus et al., 2007).
– Effect of noise on whale communication: Increased noise produced by human activities is a potential danger to whale social communication (Parks and Clark, 2007, Clark et al., 2007).
– Contamination: High levels of PCBs have been detected, followed by DDT in importance. (Woodley et al., 1991). However, although PCB concentrations increase with age in males, accumulation of contaminants in fat shows variation due to food ingestion at different sites and elimination of some contaminants during winter lipid lowering (Weisbrod et al., 2000).
Thus today they are among the most endangered whales in the world and are currently protected by the United States, the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
In Canada, the species is federally protected under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Since entanglement in floating gear accounted for 82 percent of documented right whale deaths in 2022, the Canadian Wildlife Federation has provided rope-free gear to snowcrab fishermen in and around the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
There are fewer than 400 specimens in the western North Atlantic. There is a very small population in the eastern North Atlantic, scientists believe it may already be functionally extinct from this part of the Atlantic Ocean. These whales often collide with ships and become entangled in fishing nets, their two biggest threats to recovery, which together account for nearly half of whale mortality in the eastern North Atlantic since 1970.
Globally, the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wildlife (CMS, or “Bonn Convention”) is a multilateral treaty specializing in the conservation of migratory species, their habitats and migration routes. CMS has listed the North Atlantic right whale in Appendix I, which identifies it as an endangered migratory species. This obliges member nations to commit to strict protection of these animals, conservation or restoration of habitat, mitigation of obstacles to migration and control of other factors that could endanger them.
In addition, CMS encourages concerted action among States of distribution of many Appendix I species. To this end, a small portion of the eastern Atlantic population range is covered by the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans in the Black Sea , in the Mediterranean Sea and the contiguous Atlantic area (ACCOBAMS). The Atlantic area is bounded on the west by a line from Cape St. Vincent in southwest Portugal to Casablanca, Morocco, and on the east by the Strait of Gibraltar.
Another multilateral treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES, or “Washington Convention”), also lists the North Atlantic right whale in its Appendix I. Because of these provisions it is international trade (import or export) in specimens of this species or any derivative products (e.g. food or pharmaceuticals, bones, trophies) is prohibited, except for scientific research and other exceptional cases with a specific permit for that ‘exemplary.
Whale watching activities, land or organized, are possible along the eastern coasts from Canada in the north to Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida in the south. Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary has also been designated to observe this species. Fortunate enough viewers may occasionally sight them from shores during whale migration seasons, particularly for feeding (proximities on Cape Cod such as Race Point and Brier Island) and breeding/calving (offshore of Georgia and Florida) when whales come close to shore or enter rivers or estuaries such as the Outer Banks, Pamlico Sound, Indian River Inlet, Cape Lookout, Virginia Beach, Virginia, Golden Isles of Georgia, Florida beaches (e.g. example, especially in Flagler, Jacksonville, St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra, Satellite, Crescent and Cocoa, and all others such as Ormond, New Smyrna, South Melbourne, Wrightsville, Vero), Boynton and so on. There are some piers used for lookouts such as in Jacksonville and Wrightsville.
With their low profile on the water, these whales can be difficult to spot, so all anglers and boaters transiting through potential right whale habitat should keep an eye out. Boaters should be aware that NOAA Fisheries has a “500 yard rule,” which prohibits anyone from coming within 1,500 feet of a North Atlantic right whale. The regulations include all boaters, fishing vessels (except commercial fishing vessel recovery gear), kayakers, surfers and paddleboarders, and agencies such as the US Coast Guard and Massachusetts Environmental Police have been authorized to enforce it .
Sightings of right whales can be invaluable to researchers, who recommend reporting all sightings.
For example, in Florida, the Marine Resources Council maintains a volunteer sighting network to receive sighting information from the public and verify sightings with trained volunteers.
Unfortunately due to the status of the species, as of 2014, there is no whale watching location in the central and eastern Atlantic, and oceanic islands can regularly see right whales. Of these, only right whales have been encountered off Iceland on observing tours (except for expeditions and terrestrial observations targeting birds and other fauna), and several observations have been made in Iceland during the 2000s.
– Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
– GBIF, the Facilidad Global de Información sobre Biodiversidad.
– Gordon Corbet, Denys Ovenden, 2012. Guide to mammals of Europe. Franco Muzzio Publisher.
– John Woodward, Kim Dennis-Bryan, 2018. The Great Encyclopedia of Animals. Gribaudo Publisher.