WHAT IS THE RIGHT WHALE?

by Whit Gibbons

April 23, 2017

“Deriving a universal name for a species as large as a whale might seem to be one of the easier challenges for early naturalists attempting to catalogue the world’s fauna, yet for North Atlantic right whales it was anything but easy.” So says David W. Laist in a new book, "North Atlantic Right Whales: From Hunted Leviathan to Conservation Icon" (2017, Johns Hopkins University Press).

“When North Americans joined the hunt [for whales] in the 1600s and early 1700s, this whale was variously called the black whale, the true whale, the whalebone whale, the seven-foot bone whale (a reference to the typical length of their baleen), the rocknose whale (a reference to the knobby callosities atop their head), and eventually the right whale (because its economic value was superior to that of other whales, and hence it was the right whale to chase and kill).” You will not need to consult another source to learn about the history and biology of this intriguing marine mammal.

Laist follows the history of whaling from medieval times to the present, from “the enigmatic Basques ... to Dutch, Danish, and German whalers.” As with so many alluring creatures through the ages, humans have not been good stewards of these marine mammals. The near extinction of the North Atlantic right whale occurred in large part because of its commercial value. Fortunately, the commodities once associated with right whales – such as whale oil, whalebone corsets and whale steaks – are hardly big sellers in any current U.S. markets.

The United States took two admirable actions in 1972 that advanced protection for whales. One was the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which was passed on Oct. 21; the other, enacted two months later, was the Endangered Species Act. The original MMPA was 118 pages long, which indicates a careful and thoughtful review process by Congress. The ESA soon followed. Both acts include right whales in their protection.

Several traits contributed to right whales becoming an economically profitable target for whalers. For starters, they are relatively docile. Considering that they can approach a length of 60 feet and a weight of 60 tons, such docility would be a welcome attribute to the men who hunted them in wooden boats. In addition, North Atlantic right whales are noted for feeding close to shore in bays and other relatively shallow waters.

Another desirable feature of right whales is that the blubber on a healthy right whale’s back can often be more than a foot thick. This assured that it would float after being killed by whalers. No one knows how many whales over the centuries were killed and then ultimately drifted to the ocean’s bottom, never to be retrieved. Compared to some of the other iconic whales such as sperm, bowhead and blue whales, right whales died in relatively fewer numbers. Nonetheless they were hunted almost to the point of extinction.

Right whales were also valued for their baleen, the long strands in the mouth through which engulfed water is expelled, filtering out the small microorganisms that right whales eat. Baleen, also known as whalebone, is made of keratin, structurally similar to our fingernails, and was prized for its use in various products back in the day – collar stays for men’s dress shirts, buggy whips and frames for crinoline petticoats. Corset stays were also made from whalebone.

The head of a right whale accounts for one-fourth of its body. On the top of the upper jaw are obvious protuberances known as callosities, which are “light-colored incrustations scattered along the head.” They are present only on right whales. They can resemble scars or recent wounds and may even have barnacles on them, but they are always present. No one yet knows what function, if any, the callosities serve. They are virtually always associated with small crustaceans known as whale lice. One of the heartening features of ecology for young biologists is that many mysteries of nature are still unsolved.

Today only about 500 North Atlantic right whales exist. But an encouraging note is that babies, called calves, are being recorded every year and reveal an increase in population size. From 1981 to 2000, fewer than 10 calves were documented in many years, and the number was seldom as high as 15. In seven of the years since 2001, from 20 to 35 calves have been reported. Humans have an opportunity to right a centuries-old wrong by keeping whaling regulations rigorous across the globe. If we do, North Atlantic right whales may once again number in the thousands.

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