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What makes the right whale right?

The right whale got its name because it was the right whale to hunt—it moved slowly and would float after being killed.

The first North Atlantic right whale mother and calf pair sighted in the Northeast

A North Atlantic right whale mother and calf spotted off the U.S. southern coast by NOAA researchers during the 2020 breeding season.

The North Atlantic right whale is a critically endangered species that lives off the Atlantic coast of the United States and Canada. Adult right whales are generally between 45 and 52 feet in length and can weigh up to 70 tons. When feeding, these whales swim slowly and use baleen to eat schools of small, shrimp-like crustaceans, called zooplankton.

right whale viewed from a tourism vessel in Stellwagen National Marine Sanctuary
Stellwagen Sightings

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Massachusetts is a seasonal feeding area for right whales, as well as humpback, fin, sei, and minke whales. The sanctuary is a popular whale watching destination and important conservation site for these animals.

The whaling industry is no longer a threat to these animals and they have been a protected species since 1972. Yet, their population continues to decline. As of 2018, researchers estimate that there are only about 400 North Atlantic right whales remaining, and fewer than 100 breeding females. Birth rates have also slowed dramatically in recent years.

The main dangers these whales face are being hit by vessels and becoming entangled in fishing gear. Human-made ocean noise may also interfere with normal right whale behavior, which can affect communication. 

NOAA is taking steps to promote the recovery of right whales. These include regulations to maintain a safe distance; vessel speed limits in important areas, like calving grounds; and fishing gear regulations designed to prevent entanglement. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service is also engaged in talks with Canadian officials to protect right whales along their entire Atlantic coast habitat.