North Atlantic Right Whale

Scientific name: Eubalaena glaciallis
Mi’kmaq name:


The Right Whale is a large, relatively rotund whale, with a square chin and no dorsal fin. It is generally black with occasional white patches on the belly and chin. It grows to about 16 m, with adult females averaging about 1 m longer than adult males. A strongly arched and narrow rostrum (beak) and strongly bowed lower jaw is characteristic. Grey or black thickened patches of skin, called callosities, are found on the rostrum, behind the blowhole, over the eyes, on the corners of the chin, and variably along the lower lip and jaw. The callosity pattern is unique to each whale and is used by researchers to distinguish individual animals. In the field, the blow produced when the whale exhales is distinctively V-shaped when seen along the length of the body, and can reach 7 m in height.

Distribution and Population

There are two stocks of the North Atlantic Right Whale that have been provisionally recognized by the International Whaling Commission – one in the eastern North Atlantic, where there have been sporadic sightings in coastal waters from the Canaries to Norway since the 1920s, and one in the western North Atlantic. Right Whales that are part of the western stock are found off the coast of Florida in the United States to Newfoundland and Labrador and the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada. In Canadian waters, individuals congregate in the summer and fall in the lower Bay of Fundy, mainly east of Grand Manan Island, and in the vicinity of Roseway Basin between Browns and Baccaro banks on the western Scotian Shelf. They are also seen in small numbers in the summer and fall elsewhere on the Scotian Shelf and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence along the lower north shore and east of the GaspĂ© Peninsula.

As of February 2003, a database maintained by the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium contained records of 438 known individuals, of which 402 (92%) had been seen in Canadian waters at least once. The population appears to have been declining over the past decade. It is currently estimated to contain 322 individuals; from 222 to 238 of these are thought to be mature.


The Right Whale is a migratory species that frequents coastal waters. Summers are spent feeding in the cool, temperate waters in the northern portions of its range; in winter the whale is found in the subtropical waters of the southern United States.


Right Whales, like most great whales, are baleen whales. They take huge amounts of water into their mouths and then strain and filter their food through fringed structures (baleen plates) that hang from their upper jaw. They feed primarily on copepods, small shrimp-like animals, and other zooplankton.

Surprisingly, knowledge of even the general biology of Right Whales is quite limited. Current records indicate that they regularly live longer than three decades, and one individual was estimated to be 70 years old when it was last seen. Right Whale females give birth to a single calf starting at an average age of 10 years. In 1992, the mean interval between births was 3.7 years with a range of 2 to 7 years. In the 1990s, the mean calving interval increased significantly to nearly 6 years. This increase was associated with increased variability in the number of calves born each year

During the winter months, while most adult females give birth in the coastal waters of the southeastern United States, the whereabouts of the males and non-calving females is largely unknown. About two-thirds of the Right Whale population can be found in Canadian waters during the summer and early fall months, feeding in areas where there are dense concentrations of copepods.

The small population size and low annual reproductive rate of Right Whales suggest that human sources of mortality may have a greater effect relative to population growth rates than they do for other whales.


Right Whales are particularly susceptible to being struck by ships, and to becoming entangled in fishing gear. This is in part because they spend so much time on the surface of the ocean, and because they migrate close to the coast, where vessel traffic is heavy. Other potential threats include habitat loss and degradation, infectious diseases, contaminants, marine biotoxins, disturbance from tourism, and an inadequacy of prey due to changes in ocean climate.

Courtesy of Species at Risk Public Registry, Government of Canada


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