Interesting Facts About North Pacific Right Whales
When Being Right Is Deadly
The right whale got its name from whalers who called it the "right" whale to hunt. Right whales made ideal prey because they swim slowly and float after death. This made them easier to kill, retrieve and tow to shore or bring onboard vessels.
Beginning in 1835, North Pacific right whales were extensively hunted by sailing Yankee whalers who killed 80% of them within two decades.
By 1960 the populations began to slowly recover. They were then targeted by illegal Soviet whaling, which decimated the remnant population.
Today the endangered eastern stock of North Pacific right whales is estimated to be 30 animals, making them the rarest large whale population in the world.
Historic Range of North Pacific Right Whales
Before right whales in the North Pacific were heavily exploited by commercial whalers, concentrations were found in the Gulf of Alaska, eastern Aleutian Islands, south-central Bering Sea, Sea of Okhotsk, and Sea of Japan.
During 1965-99, following illegal catches by the Soviets, there were only 82 sightings of right whales in the entire eastern North Pacific, with the majority of these occurring in the Bering Sea and adjacent areas of the Aleutian Islands.
Sightings have been reported as far south as central Baja California in the eastern North Pacific, as far south as Hawaii in the central North Pacific, and as far north as the sub-Arctic waters of the Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk in the summer.
Migratory patterns of the North Pacific whales are unknown, although it is thought the whales migrate from high-latitude feeding grounds in summer to more temperate waters during the winter, possibly offshore. No calving grounds have been found in the eastern North Pacific. Northern Right Whale adults are about 17 m long and can weigh up to 100 tons. Females are larger than males.
Do North Pacific Right Whales Play?
Researchers at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center photographed a right whale pushing a log, presumably at play.
To better understand whale behavior and movements, scientists manage one of the most comprehensive catalogs of North Pacific right whales in the world. The catalog dates back to the 1970s, and some adult whales identified then, are still living today. The whales can be differentiated by callosity patterns - that is white, raised patches of roughened skin that are found in roughly the same areas of their heads as facial hair occurs in humans.
In the database, each whale is given an exclusive code but researchers have also bestowed unofficial nicknames through the years. Notchy, Spot and Smudgy have all been found and documented numerous times; a remarkable feat given the size of the population in relation to the expansive waters where they live.
How Long Do North Pacific Right Whales Live?
Nobody is sure how long North Pacific right whales live, one would need to document many births and deaths of individual animals to obtain concrete figures. But right whales are closely related to bowhead whales, and evidence suggests bowheads can live more than 100 years.
How To Identify A North Pacific Right Whale?
Right whales can be visually identified by scientists and casual whale watchers alike by a unique V-shaped exhale as it breathes through its blowhole at the surface of the sea. This helps scientists identify North Pacific right whales during research surveys. Another way to visually identify a North Pacific right whale is by bumps on their heads called callosities. These are unique to each individual whale and help researchers visually identify and track whales we have seen before.
Where The North Pacific Right Whales Are
In 2022, at least two North Pacific right whales were spotted by fishermen east of Cape Sarichef in the Aleutian Islands. Other individuals have been spotted to the south and southwest of Kodiak Island. Citizen scientists can contribute by photographing and taking video of potential North Pacific right whale sightings. Please be sure to record as much location information as possible. Some recording equipment, such as smartphones and DSLR cameras, provide the option to record GPS information. You can email all information and photographs to firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, please report whale sightings using the Whale Alert App to help prevent vessel strikes.