Human Interaction

Whale Wars Right Whale

posted: 05/15/12
whales-whaling-right-whale0
Jeff Foott/Getty Images

The name "right" whale actually has its origin in the practice of whaling. Early whalers referred to these whales as the "right" whales to catch, due to their generous quantities of oil, blubber and baleen (whalebone). These traits, combined with the fact that right whales are slow swimming and float when killed, made the species a target of whalers for centuries.

These lumbering giants barely stood a chance against commercial hunters. The long-exploited North Atlantic population was reduced to 50 whales by 1900; today, the number teeters at a mere 300, with another 450 to 950 left in the North Pacific.

Southern right whales once numbered 70,000 to 160,000 individuals. Whalers discovered them off the coast of Tasmania at the turn of the 19th century. By 1920, only 300 were left. Today, that number has climbed to 7,000.

What's a Right Whale?

In contrast to other whales that have baleen plates, the southern right whale is a "skimmer" or "filter feeder." In other words, it feeds by moving open-mouthed through a patch of prey — generally krill — and using the baleen plates to skim food into its mouth (rather than lunging or gulping to intake food).

While most whales are sleek by design, the right is bulky, lumpish and infested with "callosities" — raised callus-like patches of skin. Callosities appear white because they're teaming with large colonies of whale lice. Also known as skeleton shrimp, these parasitic crustaceans eat algae that settles on the whale's body.

Southern right whales are generally sighted in groups of 2 or 3, but they can form groups of up to 12 individuals. They are considered inquisitive and approachable whales and have been seen to interact peacefully with other whales, dolphins or even seals. Playful or acrobatic actions, such as breaching, flipper-slapping, or doing "headstands," are thought to be socially significant, though the exact significance is unclear.

More on
Whale Wars