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Right Whales: What You Should Know About Their Recent Sightings

a man riding a wave on a surfboard in the ocean

In March 2023, whale-watchers spotted a right whale in Monterey Bay along the Northern California coast. Because of the scarcity and elusiveness of right whales, sighting them is rare. Nevertheless, the Monterey Bay sighting is among a handful of recent sightings to take place along the Pacific Coast. These sightings give hope that the critically endangered species may be on the road to recovery.

Right Whales Overview

Right whales feed on tiny marine organisms called plankton. Instead of teeth, the whales have a structure called baleen that looks like the bristles of a brush. They feed by opening their mouths as they swim, allowing the plankton to get caught in their baleens. They then use their tongues to push out the excess water as they close their mouths and swallow the plankton caught in the baleen.

Unlike some whale species, the North Pacific right whale does not have a large dorsal fin. Its body is stocky and appears black. Its head is approximately a quarter of the length of its entire body and often sports callosities, i.e., rough skin in raised patches. These patches help scientists and other observers distinguish individual whales from one another.

Where Do They Live?

Scientists believe North Pacific right whales spend the summer feeding in plankton-rich waters in the Bering Sea and other subpolar oceanic regions. In the winter, they migrate to warmer waters to the south. There have been sightings of right whales as far south as Baja California, which supports this theory. However, no one has ever been able to track their migratory patterns in detail.

There are three different species of right whales, all designated as endangered species. The North Atlantic right whale lives primarily off the eastern coast of North America and the western coastal regions of Europe, including the British Isles and Iceland. Southern right whales live mainly in the Antarctic Ocean.

a whale jumping out of the water

Recent Sightings

How many North Pacific right whales are left is unclear, but the estimated population is 500 individuals or less. Sightings are, therefore, very rare. When the Monterey Bay Whale Watch announced the sighting in March 2023, its spokesperson said it was the organization’s first sighting of the species since it began in 1997.

More recently, in August and September of 2023, scientists studying whales sighted four individual right whales during a 48-day survey of the Aleutian waters south of Alaska. The scientists were able to identify four individual right whales based on photographs that they took of the callosities on the whales’ heads. While it is unusual to see so many right whales at once, what excited the scientists was that at least one of the whales was one they had never seen before. This suggests that the whales are breeding successfully, and the population could increase.

Threats to Right Whales

In the 19th century, whale hunting drove the right whales nearly to extinction. Whale hunting is now illegal, but right whales face other threats:

  • Ocean Noise: Whales navigate and communicate by sound, but the noise from maritime vessels and drilling interferes with these abilities.
  • Entanglement: Whales can become tangled in fishing gear and drown.
  • Vessel Strikes: Collisions with ships can fatally injure whales.

The biggest threat to right whales is climate change, which can negatively affect the plankton they feed and promote the growth of toxic algal blooms.

a man lying in a body of water

How Can You Help?

You can help right whales and other marine life by using energy more efficiently to reduce your carbon footprint. Use renewable energy resources as much as possible. Reduce waste by recycling and pick up litter that you see. If you see marine wildlife in distress, report it to authorities. Show respect for marine wildlife and view from a safe distance. A whale-watching trip with Next Level Sailing is a responsible way to observe these magnificent creatures.