Length: 45 - 64 ft
Weight: up to 200,000 pounds
Live up to 70 years
Color: black bodies, some with white patches on their stomachs
Fins: no dorsal fin, two pectoral fins and a tail
Proportions: head is a quarter of their body length
Mouth: right whales are baleen whales, so they have plates instead of teeth
Callosities: white patches of rough skin on their heads
Heart-shaped blow: like all baleen whales, right whales have two blow holes on the top of their heads, so when they exhale the spray looks like a heart
the Life of a north Pacific right whale
North Pacific right whales are one of the largest whales in the ocean and among the largest animals to ever live on planet earth. But, because they were hunted almost to extinction, there isn't much that we know about them today. Some information we can get from other right whale species, like the North Atlantic right whale, but there are a lot of questions that still need answers for the North Pacific whales. Where are their breeding grounds? Do they stick to the coasts? Or are they found throughout the North Pacific ocean, like they were before they were hunted? Since hunting is no longer legal, what are the current threats? Below is a collection of the information we know or suspect about these endangered whales.
Off the North American coast, these whales are usually seen just one or two at a time in coastal waters from Alaska to Hawaii to Baja. But even if they are by themselves physically, they can still communicate over long distances. North Atlantic and Southern right whales don’t sing, but the North Pacific ones do! Ground breaking research by Jessica Crance in 2019 demonstrated that North Pacific right whales sing songs.
Right whales eat tiny little sea creatures called copepods. They get their food by swimming through large patches of these creatures, filtering out the water and catching the animals in their baleen. In order to keep up their blubber, which is like a winter coat for the cold water, they need to eat thousands of pounds of food a day! When there isn't a lot of food around, their blubber also allows them to go long periods without eating.
Migration & Babies
These whales start having kids around 8-10 years old. The females are pregnant for a year and then take care of the baby after it’s born.
Although they can be found in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska at any month of the year, in general North Pacific right whales are found in northern waters in the summer and fall and subtropical waters in the winter and spring. This suggests there is some kind of migration happening, though we don’t yet have enough data to specifically define it. We also don’t know where the whales have their babies, but we can guess it’s in shallow, protected coastal waters based on other species of right whale.
Hunting is no longer legal, but North Pacific right whales still have a hard time out in the ocean. North Pacific right whales face dangers from boat collisions, entanglement in fishing gear, ocean noise, ocean pollution and food availability.
Getting hit by a ship is a real threat to right whales, whose feeding strategy has them spending more time on the surface than other whale species. Ship strike is a leading cause of mortality for the better studied North Atlantic right whale. Although North Pacific right whales often spend their time in remote parts of the ocean, injury or death from ship strike is a real possibility in any part of their range. An area of particular concern is Unimak Pass in Alaska, which is used year-round as one of the main passes from right whale habitat in the Pacific Ocean to their habitat in the Bering Sea. It is also the main route used by shipping vessels traveling between Asia and North America. Right whales have an increased risk of ship strike when they are in this narrow pass. Check out real-time ship traffic in Unimak Pass and the North Pacific here. Right whales are also very vulnerable to ocean noise generated by shipping and oil exploration in their habitat. One of our favorite studies of all time shows a decrease in North Atlantic right whale stress hormones with a decrease in ocean noise.
Right whales can get caught up in fishing and crabbing gear, which injures them or makes it hard for them to swim or eat. If the entanglement is permanent, it can eventually exhaust and kill them. Entanglement in fishing gear is a leading cause of mortality for the better studied North Atlantic right whales, killing multiple whales every year. The Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska have some of the most intense commercial fishing pressure in North America and although evidence of North Pacific right whales becoming entangled is scarce, some whales do show signs of previous entanglements. Watch current fishing activity here.
The warming ocean is likely to have a negative impact on North Pacific right whales as habitat and food availability change. As climate change decreases sea ice, it will also change the life patterns of zooplankton (right whales’ favorite snack), and could make it hard for the whales to get the food they need to survive and reproduce. Also, less sea ice means more shipping traffic and increased risk of ship strike. Due to their small population size, shifts in habitat use will be hard to recognize and will make protecting their habitat even more of a challenge.
A scientific paper published in 2020 determined that North Pacific right whales were the marine mammal most vulnerable to climate change, both in low and high greenhouse gas emission scenarios. This is partly due to their habitat, the North Pacific, which could see a sea surface temperature warming of around 4°C by the end of the century because of climate change. This could alter the ecosystem and food web of the area.
“Marine mammals in this region face double jeopardy from both human activities… and global warming.” - Albouy, 2020
The two populations
100s of whales
North Pacific right whales are made up of two populations: one in the eastern part of the North Pacific, off the coast of North America, and one in the western part of the North Pacific, off the coast of Asia. As far as we know, these two populations don’t interact with one another.
Through sightings and listening for whale calls with underwater acoustic devices, scientists have determined that there are only about 30 whales left in the North American population. There are guesses that the Asian whales number in the hundreds, but population predictions for this part of the ocean vary widely. For comparison, there are 350 North Atlantic right whales left, and 15,000 Southern right whales left. Before whaling decimated the North Pacific right whales in the 1800’s, it’s estimated that there were tens of thousands of them.