North Atlantic right whale spotted off North Hampton NH coast

2022-05-11 08:39:54 By : Mr. Lane L

This week two endangered North Atlantic right whales were spotted feeding just off the beach in North Hampton. You may have seen the video on the news. This is an extremely rare occurrence. I have never seen one this close to shore. It was following a bloom of copepods and plankton that has appeared right along the shoreline.  

Right whales are very distinctive. Their blow is V-shaped and their head is covered with white patches from whale lice (cyamids) which are used by scientists to identify each whale. These whales are also distinctive as they do not have a dorsal fin.  

The two whales were identified by the New England Aquarium as Aphrodite (#1701) a 35-year-old female who has birthed at least 6 calves in her lifetime and Andy, a 32-year-old male. The Northern right whales annually migrate between their feeding and mating grounds off Atlantic Canada and New England to their birthing grounds from Florida to the Carolinas. This can be a migration of over 1000 miles!

Right whales are baleen whales. Along with the other baleen whales found in our waters, humpbacks, fin, and minke, they have no teeth. Instead, they have something called baleen hanging down from the roof of their mouth. Baleen is keratin, like our fingernails and hair. It grows in strips that rub against their bottom jaw and become frayed. While feeding they take water into their mouths and push it through the layers of baleen and filter the copepods, plankton, and small fish; then using their tongue they swallow their food. This is a unique form of feeding found only in baleen whales and some sharks.

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During the whaling era, they were the “right whale” to harpoon. The whalers thought themselves lucky when they spotted a “right whale” sleeping. They sleep on the surface, tended to sleep right through being harpooned and bled out and they floated during the process. Most whales would wake and run when harpooned causing the inevitable “Nantucket sleighride” by pulling the dory that harpooned them on a wild ride many times to the death of the whalers on board. 

The floating carcass made it an easy time for the whalers to get the blubber on board. Thus, the nickname “Right Whale.”  

They were so easy to catch that they were one of the first species of whales to be overfished to the point of near extinction. I don’t judge the early whalers, they assumed that the whales were so abundant that there was no way that they could wipe them out, they were just trying to feed their families. We, in the 21st century, have the advantage of hindsight and can track just how inevitable the near extinction was.

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The ability to sleep soundly has proved the bane of their actual existence in these modern times as they often times sleep through being hit by a boat or ship. Most whales wake from the noise of a ship or boat, but it appears that right whales are heavy sleepers.  

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is charged with monitoring and managing these endangered species.  

Right whales, (Eubalaena glacialis) have been on the endangered species list since 1970. 

There are currently three populations of right whales in the world, the North Pacific right whale, the Northern right whale in the North Atlantic, and the Southern right located in the southern hemisphere. The Northern right whales are closely monitored by NOAA and organizations like the New England Aquarium who are contracted by NOAA for that purpose. 

Each whale is given a number and sometimes a nickname and the calves are counted and monitored and extended genealogy kept for each one.  

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According to the NOAA website, there are approximately 350 right whales in the North Atlantic, migrating between the mating area off New England and their calving area from Florida to the Carolina coast.  

Scientists from NOAA have determined that the population would need to produce 20 calves per year to maintain their numbers and over 30 to increase their numbers. 

Currently it appears that there are more males than females which does not bode well for any population. The females are mature at age 10 and produce one calf about every three years. The females are pregnant for a year. Unfortunately, it appears that the females are calving only every 6 to 10 years which is exacerbating the low numbers of individuals in the population. Aging whales, as you can imagine, is a difficult procedure and is usually done by a necropsy of a dead whale. It is unknown how old they would become if allowed to die of old age, the average age of female right whales is estimated at 45 and males are 65. Unfortunately, the mortality is currently determined by death from ship strikes and entanglement from fishing lines.  

NOAA has developed a new set of rules for all fishing gear that has a vertical line in the water. 

This includes lobster traps, gill nets and mooring lines. The lobstermen are required to develop and employ neutrally buoyant lines between their traps, breakaway weak links to their buoys or to use “ropeless” gear. 

Ropeless gear has yet to be successfully employed. Each state has required that the lobstermen in their state mark each of their lines, so if a whale is entangled the scientists will know where the whale became entangled. 

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This should help to determine closed areas during certain times of the year. Presently NOAA has dynamic closed areas and slow speed zones surrounding anywhere that right whales are spotted.

There may be some good news though, according to an AP article in, in 2021 there were 17 calves birthed one died shortly after birth. It appears that this number was more than the total births from the previous three years. Fingers crossed that they will keep this going.

If you have a chance to go on a whale watch this week or just take a stroll along the beach keep your eyes open for that distinctive V-shaped blow. You may be lucky enough to see one of the 350 right whales left in our waters.

Ellen Goethel is a marine biologist and the owner of Explore the Ocean World at 367 Ocean Blvd. at Hampton Beach.