The Right Whale

Why are Right Whales called Right Whales? The genus Eubalaena is called the ‘right whales’, but why is that?

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The typical V-shaped blow for Southern Right Whales

The story behind this is actually a sad one. For whalers, already in the 17th century, these were the right whale to catch for three reasons. First, they are slow swimmers, making it easy for the whalers to keep up with the whale. This was especially important as in those days whaling took place from rowing boats taking off from land-based stations. Secondly, when killed, they stay afloat, making it a lot easier to tow the whale back to the whaling station. In contrast to other baleen whales, they do not sink to the bottom. This is because they have a lot of fat on their body, which they need to survive in the cold polar waters, which is the habitat for this group. This is also the last reason why they are called right whales, the amount of fat on this type of whale is a lot higher, so you’ll get more profit per whale.

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Southern Right Whale

A more beautiful story is that of their maximum age. Once a Bowhead Whale was captured by Inuit (the native people of Canada and Alaska) that already had a harpoon arrow in its body. Apparently, Inuit had tried to catch it before but were not successful. Not surprising, so far, but at closer inspection, it turned out this particular type of harpoon arrow hadn’t been in use for 135 years! This triggered scientists to perform further research. In Bowhead Whales they get an accurate estimation of the age of a whale by looking at molecules in the fluid in the inner ear. To get to this fluid, the whale has to be dead. Of course, they didn’t kill the whale for this reason, but they asked several Inuit communities who are allowed to kill a few animals for local use. After analysing five different individuals, they had found one animal of 90 years old, three between 100 and 150 and one animal was over 200 years old! Making this animal the oldest living mammal on Earth!

How old these Southern Right Whales can get, is not known, but I would not be surprised if it would be something similar. In that case wouldn’t it be nice if we could talk to them? They probably have many stories to tell. How they survived whaling, maybe they met Shackleton or some of the other explorers…

Arjen Drost

Arjen is a Polar ecologist, nature photographer and full time expedition guide on expedition cruise ships in both Polar regions. With his pictures and stories he likes to show the beauty of these very fragile and threatened places.

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