Right Whale

All photographs by Brian Skerry / © National Geographic Society. All rights reserved

Right whales are the rarest of all large whales. There are several species, but all are identified by enormous heads, which can measure up to one-third of their total body length. These whales' massive heads and jaws accommodate hundreds of baleen "teeth." Rights and other baleen-feeding whales use a comblike strainer of baleen plates and bristles to ensnare tiny morsels of food as they swim. Right whales feed on zooplankton and other tiny organisms using baleens up to 8 feet (2.4 meters) long.

Southern and the two species of northern right whales live in temperate Atlantic or Pacific waters, often near the coast.

Right whales were named by whalers who identified them as the "right" whale to kill on a hunt. These leviathans had enormous value for their plentiful oil and baleen, which were used for corsets, buggy whips, and other contrivances. Because of their thick blubber, right whales also float accommodatingly after they have been killed. Populations of these whales were decimated during the whaling heydays of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. During this period they came close to extinction.

Because females do not become sexually mature until ten years of age and give birth to a single calf after a yearlong pregnancy, populations grow slowly.

All species of right whales are endangered and have enjoyed complete international protection since 1949. Several thousand southern right whales are believed to survive, and they have shown some encouraging population growth since their protection. South Africa's population is believed to have grown from 100 to 1,000 animals since 1940.

Northern right whales are the most endangered of all large whales. They number only several hundred, and populations do not appear to have grown in the decades since their protection began.

(from National Geographic website)

Right whales may be giving birth off South Carolina

by Bo Petersen Excerpt taken from The Post and Courier

The first of the giant right whales to be spotted offshore here this winter were a mother and calf pair, an early Christmas season delight for the aerial survey team in charge of monitoring the critically endangered species.

Four days later, two days before Christmas, the team got another surprise off Hilton Head — a different calf and mother; the mother had been seen off Georgia only a few days earlier, not having given birth.

The sightings give more support to the growing realization among researchers that the whales are giving birth here, well north of the waters off Florida where they were long thought to calve.

“It does appear (the two mothers) could have given birth here in South Carolina,” said Melanie White, Sea to Shore Alliance aerial survey team leader. With the Lowcountry coast still not necessarily thought of as a critical breeding habitat, she said, “that’s something good to know.”

The team flying from Charleston is part of a network trying to keep track of the whales, partly so ships know when they are around.

The right whale is the mammoth of the Atlantic, a 40-ton sea mammal longer than a bus.

The species was nearly wiped out by whalers in the 19th century. Only about 400 are known to exist today, so few that researchers consider every whale vital to the survival of the species.