Old sailors can be blunt, but honest. If you were to ask a whaler in the 1800s which species of whale they were after, their answer would likely be the “right” one.
The common name of Eubalaena glacialis, the North Atlantic Right Whale, can be traced back to its high value as a target of whaling ships. Right whales were considered to be the ideal species to hunt because of their high blubber content, which makes them float after being killed, and because Right Whales commonly swim close to shore at slow speed. Oil and baleen were the primary reasons Right Whales were hunted. Whale oil was used as fuel for lamps or for producing soap. Baleen are bristle-like projections found in the mouth of some whales. The bristles are made of keratin, like your fingernails, and allow the whale to filter tiny organisms out of seawater. Baleen was used in a number of ways as a rigid but pliable frame for umbrellas, folding fans, or women’s corsets. Whaling massively depleted populations of Right Whale in the North Atlantic, and this species has been considered endangered since 1970.
Right whales can grow to be 52 feet long and weigh 70 tons. Their bodies are stout and black, lacking a dorsal fin. Their most striking features are patterns of rough skin on their heads called callosites. Callosite patterns on Right Whales are unique, like a fingerprint, and often appear white because they are covered in small crustaceans that feed on the whale’s skin. The diet of Right Whales consists primarily of zooplankton and copepods, which they filter out of the water with baleen. Right whales are acrobatic; they are known to breach, launching themselves into the air and returning to the water with a tremendous splash.
This has been On the Ocean, a program made possible by the Department of Oceanography and a production of KAMU-FM on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. For more information and links, please go to ocean.tamu.edu and click On the Ocean.
Featured image from: NOAA
Authors: Jocelyn Kmiecik and Zachary Richards
Contributing Professor: Dr. Lisa Campbell
Editor: James M. Fiorendino