Alaska Whales: Right Whale

Alaska Marine Highway

Alaska's State Flower is the "Forget-Me-Not. Forget me not flowers are very fragrant in the evening and night time, though there is little or no scent in the daytime. They can be annual or perennial plants. Their seeds are found in small, tulip shaped pods along the stem to the flower.

There are eight species of whales that frequent the cold and icy waters of Alaska. The Beluga, Humpback, Gray, Orca, Bowhead, Blue, Right, and Minke whales.

The North Pacific right whale is a very large, robust baleen whale species that is now extremely rare and endangered. The eastern population of whales that occur off the west coast of Alaska likely has an abundance of only a few tens of animals, making it the most endangered marine mammal population in U.S. waters.  Prior to commercial whaling in the North Pacific the populations in the North Pacific probably were over 20,000 animals. Between the late 1960s and the mid-1990s sightings of right whales in the eastern North Pacific were rare, widely scattered, and almost always involved solitary animals.

A significant sighting occurred in the summer of 1996 when a group of four animals was reported in the southeastern Bering Sea, and then in 2004 a concentration of whales was found that included a minimum of 17 whales. In 2002, the first confirmed sighting in decades was made of a right whale calf. NOAA Fisheries now conducts extensive research on this small population to learn more about its population status.

The North Pacific right whale is a large baleen whale. Baleen whales are characterized by having baleen plates for filtering food from water, rather than having teeth. The females are larger than the males and can grow up to 55 feet. The North Pacific right whale has a very large head, approximately one-quarter of its body length, with strongly arched jaws. Right whales are sometimes confused with bowhead whales. Right whales typically have the obvious wart-like callosities on their heads, while the skin of bowhead whales is usually smooth. 

Right whales are the only baleen whale species in the North Pacific that lack a dorsal fin altogether. Right whales are also unique in that all individuals have callosities—roughened patches of epidermis covered with aggregations of hundreds of small cyamids that cluster on the callosities. As in other species of right whales, the callosities appear on its head immediately behind the blowholes, along the rostrum to the tip which often has a large callosity, referred to by whalers as the "bonnet".

There are light, wart-like spots on its head called callosities. It has a wide body, lacks a dorsal fin, and is mostly black with some white patches on its underside. Right whales weigh up to 2,000 lb at birth and up to 220,000 lb at maturity, with a life span over 50 years. Two populations, or stocks, of North Pacific right whales are currently recognized, one in the western North Pacific off Russia and the other in the eastern North Pacific off Alaska.

Right whales prefer coastlines and sometimes large bays, but may spend a lot of time on the open sea. The Northern right whale populations are considered to be close to extinction. Right whales are baleen whales, they filter their food through their long baleen plates. Right whales open their great mouths and graze along the surface of the water. Right whales mostly eat small crustaceans including copepods and small shrimp-like animals called euphausiids.

Female right whales generally give birth to their first calf at 9-10 years of age. Pregnancy lasts approximately 1 year. The calf is 13-15 feet and weighs up to 2,000 lb at birth and will nurse for a year. Mature right whales grow to 45-55 feet and up to 220,000 pounds (100 metric tons). Populations of right whales grow slowly because it takes a long time for female right whales to reach sexual maturity and only give birth to a single calf.

Right whales spend more than 80 percent of their lives below water. We gain clues about their sub-surface behavior from underwater microphones (hydrophones), data tags, and from whale dive times. Right whales have been seen returning to the surface with mud on their heads, indicating they swam to the ocean’s bottom during a dive.

The migration patterns of the North Pacific right whale are unknown. It is believed that they feed during the summer in high latitudes and move to more temperate areas for the winter.


Alaska right whale peeking out of ocean

Alakan right whale in pacific ocean

Alaska Whales:

There are eight species of whales that frequent the cold and icy waters of Alaska

Learn more about Alaska's whales

beluga whale is now endangered in Alaska nature Alask humpback whale Alaska grey whale
Beluga Humpback Gray Whale
Alaska orca whale also known as a killer whale alaska bowhead whale endangered great blue whale in Alaska waters
Orca Bowhead Blue Whale
endangered right whale in Alaska waters Alaska Minke whale  
Right Whale Minke