About The Species
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the world’s most endangered large whale species, with only about 400 whales 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. Right whales are baleen whales, feeding on shrimp-like krill and small fish by straining huge volumes of ocean water through their baleen plates, which 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. Entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes are among the leading causes of North Atlantic right whale mortality.
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.
North Atlantic right whales have been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act since 1970. Today researchers estimate there are about 400 North Atlantic right whales in the population with fewer than 100 breeding females left. Only 12 births have been observed in the three calving seasons since 2017, less than one-third the previous average annual birth rate for right whales. This, together with an unprecedented 30 mortalities since 2017 (part of a declared Unusual Mortality Event), accelerates the downward trend that began around 2010, with deaths outpacing births in this population.
Throughout Its Range
CITES Appendix I
Throughout Its Range
Throughout Its Range
Throughout Its Range
North Atlantic right whales have stocky black bodies with no dorsal fin, and their spouts are shaped like a “V.” Their tails are broad, deeply notched, and all black with a smooth trailing edge. Their stomachs and chests may be all black or have irregularly 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, which appear white because of whale lice (cyamids). Each right whale has a unique pattern of these callosities. Scientists use these patterns to identify individual whales, an invaluable tool in tracking population size and health. Aerial and ship-based surveys and the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium’s photo-identification database maintained by our partners at the New England Aquarium help track populations over the years using a right whale’s unique pattern of callosities.
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.
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.
Where They Live
World map providing approximate representation of the North Atlantic right whale's range.
North Atlantic right whales primarily occur in Atlantic coastal waters or close to the continental shelf, although movements over deep waters are known.
Right whales migrate seasonally and may travel alone or in small groups. In the spring, summer, and into fall, many of these whales can be found in waters off New England and further north into the Canadian Maritimes, where they feed and mate.
Each fall, some right whales travel more than 1,000 miles from these feeding grounds to the shallow, coastal waters of South Carolina, Georgia, and northeastern Florida. These waters in the southern United States are the only known calving area for the species—an area where females regularly give birth during winter. While this is the typical pattern, migration patterns vary for some of these whales.
NOAA Fisheries has designated two critical habitat areas 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).
Lifespan & Reproduction
Right whales can probably live at least 70 years, but data on their average lifespan is limited. 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. However, female North Atlantic right whales are now only living to around 45 and males only to around 65.
In recent years, we've recorded more deaths among adult females than males. There are now more males than females in the population, and that gap is widening. Females, by going through the energetic stress of reproduction, are more susceptible than males to dying from entanglement or ship strike injuries. Today, we believe there are about 95 reproductively active females.
Female right whales become sexually mature at about age 10. They give birth to a single calf after a year-long pregnancy. Three years is considered a normal or healthy interval between right whale calving events. But now, on average, females are having calves every 6 to 10 years. In the last three calving seasons (2017-2019) there were only 12 births, which is about one-third of the average annual birth rate. Biologists believe that the additional stress caused by entanglement is one of the reasons that females are calving less often.
Entanglement in fishing lines attached to gillnets and traps on the ocean floor is one of the greatest threats to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Becoming entangled in fishing gear can severely stress and injure a whale, and lead to a painful death. Studies suggest that more than 85 percent of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once, and about 60 percent have been entangled multiple times.
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 and other vessels.
Underwater noise pollution interrupts the normal behavior of right whales and interferes with their communication.