North Atlantic right whale breaching out of the water.

About The Species

The North Atlantic right whale is one of the world’s most endangered large whale species, with fewer than 500 remaining. Two other species of right whale exist in the world’s oceans: the North Pacific right whale, which is found in the Pacific Ocean, and the southern right whale, which is found in the southern hemisphere. These whales are baleen whales, feeding on shrimp-like krill and small fish by straining huge volumes of ocean water through their baleen plates that act like a sieve.

By the early 1890s, commercial whalers had hunted right whales in the Atlantic to the brink of extinction. Whaling is no longer a threat, but human interactions still present the greatest danger to this species. The leading cause of known mortality for North Atlantic right whales is entanglement in fishing gear, followed by vessel strikes.  

NOAA Fisheries and our partners are dedicated to conserving and rebuilding the North Atlantic right whale population. We use a variety of innovative techniques to study, protect, and rescue these endangered whales. We engage our partners as we develop regulations and management plans that foster healthy fisheries and reduce the risk of entanglements, create whale-safe shipping practices, and reduce ocean noise.  

Status

North Atlantic right whales have been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act since 1970. The North Atlantic right whale population is very small and, consequently, its status can change quickly. According to the most recent North Atlantic right whale stock assessment report (PDF, 299KB), the western North Atlantic right whale population numbered at least 440 individuals as of 2012. 

ESA Endangered

throughout its range

CITES Appendix I

throughout its range

MMPA Depleted

throughout its range

Appearance

North Atlantic right whales have a stocky black body, with no dorsal fin. Their tail is broad, deeply notched, and all black with a smooth trailing edge. The stomach and chest may be all black or have irregular-shaped white patches. Pectoral flippers are relatively short, broad, and paddle-shaped. Calves are about 14 feet at birth and adults can grow to lengths of up to 52 feet.

Their characteristic feature is raised patches of rough skin, called callosities, on their heads that appear white because of whale lice (cyamids). Each right whale has a unique pattern of these callosities. Scientists are able to use these patterns to identify individual whales, an invaluable tool to understand population size and health. Aerial and ship-based surveys help track populations over the years using a right whale’s unique pattern of callosities and a photo-identification database maintained by our partners at the New England Aquarium.

Behavior and Diet

When viewing right whales, you might see these enormous creatures breaching—propelling themselves up and out of the water—and then crashing back down with a thunderous splash. You might also see them slapping their tails (lobtailing) or their flippers (flippering) on the water’s surface.

Right whales migrate seasonally and may travel alone or in small groups. In the spring, summer, and fall they are found in their northern habitats, where they feed and mate. During winter, pregnant females give birth in the only known North Atlantic right whale calving area off the southeastern United States.

Groups of right whales may be seen actively socializing at the water’s surface, known as surface-active groups or SAGs. Mating occurs in SAGs, observed during all seasons and in all habitats, but SAGs likely serve other social purposes as well.

Right whales produce low-frequency vocalizations best described as moans, groans, and pulses. Scientists suspect that these calls are used to maintain contact between individuals, communicate threats, signal aggression, or for other social reasons.

Right whales feed by opening their mouths while swimming slowly through large patches of minute zooplankton and copepods. They filter out these tiny organisms from the water through their baleen, where the copepods become trapped in a tangle of hair-like material that acts like a sieve. Right whales feed anywhere from the water’s surface to the bottom of the water column.

Location Description
North Atlantic right whales primarily occur in Atlantic coastal waters or close to the continental shelf, although movements over deep waters are known. Most known right whale nursery areas are in shallow, coastal waters.
Each Fall, some right whales travel more than 1,000 miles from their feeding grounds off the Canadian Maritimes and New England to the warm coastal waters of South Carolina, Georgia, and northeastern Florida. These southern waters are the only known calving area for the species—an area where they regularly give birth and nurse their young. NOAA Fisheries has designated two critical habitat areas determined to provide important feeding, nursery, and calving habitat for the North Atlantic population of right whales:
>> Off the coast of New England (foraging area).
>> Off the southeast U.S. coast from Cape Fear, North Carolina, to below Cape Canaveral, Florida (calving area).
North Atlantic Right Whale range map.
Lifespan and Reproduction

Females do not become sexually mature until they are around 10 years old. They give birth to a single calf after a year-long pregnancy. From 1987 through 1992, there were only 51 known actively reproducing females. During that same timeframe, females gave birth around every four years (three years is considered a normal or healthy interval between right whale calving events).

Right whales can probably live at least 70 years, but there are few data on their average lifespan. Ear wax can be used to estimate age in right whales after they have died. Another way to determine life span is to look at groups of closely related species. There are indications that some species closely related to right whales may live more than 100 years.

Threats

Entanglement

Fishing gear, such as nets and ropes, is the most significant threat to North Atlantic right whales. Entanglements in fishing gear is the leading cause of death for the species. Floating lines between lobster or crab traps are particularly dangerous, since they can form loops that whales can be caught in.

Vessel Strikes

Vessel strikes are a major threat to North Atlantic right whales. Their habitat and migration routes are close to major ports along the Atlantic seaboard and often overlap with shipping lanes, making the whales vulnerable to collisions with ships. 

Ocean Noise

Underwater noise pollution interrupts the normal behavior of right whales and interferes with their communication.  

Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Mammalia
Order
Cetacea
Family
Balaenidae
Genus
Eubalaena
Species
glacialis

What We Do

Conservation & Management

We are committed to the protection and recovery of the North Atlantic right whale through implementation of various conservation, regulatory, rescue, and enforcement measures. Our work includes:

  • Protecting habitat and designating critical habitat.

  • Rescuing entangled right whales.

  • Reducing the threat of vessel collisions.

  • Reducing injury and mortality by fisheries and fishing gear.

  • Minimizing the effects of vessel disturbance and noise.

Science Behind the Scenes

We conduct various research activities on the biology, behavior, and ecology of the North Atlantic right whale. The results of this research are used to inform management decisions and enhance recovery efforts for this critically endangered species. Our work includes:

  • Identifying habitat and when it is used by right whales.

  • Investigating unusual mortality events.

  • Performing stock assessments to gather population information.

  • Tracking individuals over time to monitor important population traits.

How You Can Help

Report a Right Whale Sighting

Please report all right whale sightings from Virginia to Maine to (866) 755-6622, and from Florida to North Carolina to 877-WHALE-HELP ((877) 942-5343). Right whale sightings in any location may also be reported to the U.S. Coast Guard via channel 16 or through the WhaleAlert iPhone/iPad app. 

Stay 500 Yards Away

To protect right whales, NOAA Fisheries has regulations that prohibit approaching or remaining within 500 yards (1,500 feet) of a right whale—500 yards is the length of about four football fields. These regulations apply to vessels and aircraft (including drones), and to people using other watercraft such as surfboards, kayaks, and jet-skis.

Any vessel within 500 yards of a right whale must depart immediately at a safe, slow speed.

Learn more about our marine life viewing guidelines >

 

Marine Life In Distress

Report Marine Life in Distress

Report a sick, injured, entangled, stranded, or dead animal to make sure professional responders and scientists know about it and can take appropriate action. Numerous organizations around the country are trained and ready to respond.

Learn who you should contact when you encounter a stranded or injured marine animal >

Report a Violation

Report a Violation

Call the NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hotline at (800) 853-1964 to report a federal marine resource violation. This hotline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days week for anyone in the United States.

You may also contact your closest NOAA Office of Law Enforcement field office during regular business hours.