Of all the large whales, right whales are the rarest. The scarcity of these whales has an historic—and tragic—connection with the species’ name: Whalers called them “right” whales as they were deemed the right kind of whale to hunt, due to their plentiful and highly valuable oil and baleen. Whalers also favored right whales due to their slow speed, docility and thick blubber, the latter making them float after they had been killed, making it easier to harvest their materials. During the height of the whaling industry, right whales were hunted almost to extinction, and their numbers remain worryingly low.
There are three species of right whale: the North Atlantic, the North Pacific and the Southern right whale. The two northern species have the lowest numbers—it’s estimated that the North Pacific population may only include some 400 individuals. Southern right whale numbers show a more positive trend, with a population of at least 10,000 individuals.
Southern right whales spend the summer in the far Southern Ocean, at times close to Antarctica. They head further north to breed during the winter, but very rarely cross through warm equatorial waters due to their thick blubber.
Like other baleen whales, right whales use their comb-like baleen strainer to filter zooplankton—primarily krill—from the water. Rather than making deep dives, right whales prefer to feed just beneath the water’s surface, skimming along with their mouths open.
Right whales are easy to identify as they have no dorsal fin and their heads are covered in whitish growths known as callosities. (Fun fact: they also have the largest testicles in the world, with each one weighing around 500 kg.) Socially, southern right whales are playful and curious, and happily interact with humpback whales, dolphins and even humans. They also engage in a behavior known as “tail sailing,” which is unique to southern right whales. They “sail” by raising their flukes into the air to catch the wind, letting the breeze slowly push them along—something they seem to do simply for the fun of it.
Other Antarctica Wildlife
Adélie Penguin / Chinstrap Penguin / Emperor Penguin / Gentoo Penguin / Macaroni Penguin / Crabeater Seal / Elephant Seal / Fur Seal / Leopard Seal / Ross Seal / Weddell Seal / Blue Whale / Fin Whale / Humpback Whale / Killer Whale / Minke Whale / Sei Whale / Sperm Whale