Right whales - Right whales are the bulkiest whales, but very agile nonetheless. Watch them jump in Australia, South Africa and Argentina.


The fattest and mightiest of all whales. See them breach in Argentina, South Africa and Australia.


Photo: iStock/Eme_Silva


The fattest and mightiest of all whales. See them breach in Argentina, South Africa and Australia.


Photo: iStock/Eme_Silva


Right whales can get up to 200 years old. It’s well possible that there are still some of those around, which were already hunted by the whalers in “Moby Dick”. Especially right whales were hunted excessively.

Right whales are the whales that suffered most from whaling. They are slow swimmers, friendly towards humans, prefer to stay close to the coast and have such a thick layer of fat that they even keep swimming when dead. These are excellent characteristics from a whaler’s point of view – hence the name “right whale”: The right whale to hunt. Excessive hunting over centuries has made the right whale nearly extinct. That’s not just horrible by itself, but also because they are the perfect whales for whale watching.

There are northern und southern right whales and bowhead whales. They are so similar to each other, though, that they are just summarized as right whales. They live in different regions and basically never meet.

The most striking thing about them is their weight. They can weigh up to 100 tons, which with they share second place behind the blue whale with the finbackIn difference to those two, the southern right whales are enthusiastic jumpers. They actually manage to lift a huge part of their enormous body out of the water and, when landing, produce a crash so loud that it can be heard from a kilometer away.

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Right whales mostly consist of fat. Their layer of fat can get up to 70cm thick and make up 40% of their total body weight. Yes, that is 40 tons of fat. It is such good isolation that the body temperature of a whale can remain above 30°C several days after its death.

To keep their weight, right whales are busy doing one thing and one thing only, all day long: Feeding with as little effort as possible. Similar to blue whales, right whales just swim around with their mouths wide open and filter out millions of little crabs with their 4 meter long (record!) baleen.

The most fascinating thing about right whales is their lifespan: They can get incredibly old. In the layer of fat of a bowhead whale, which had been killed by Canadian Inuit, tips of a stone harpoon from the 19th century were found, suggesting that bowhead whales can reach an age of 200 years.

This makes them the longest living vertrebrate animals on earth. (Followed by the Galapagos giant tortoise with ca. 180 years.) So it is well possible, that there are still some bowhead whales around that were already hunted when Melville’s “Moby Dick” came out in 1851. Talk about time travel.

The first illustration shows a bowhead whale, the second a southern right whale. The head of both whales is similarly huge.

More great records: Southern right whales have the biggest testicles of all animals! One pair weighs up to a ton.

Southern right whales are the only ones in question for whale watching tours. Only a few northern right whales survived the excessive whaling and the numbers only hardly recover. Worldwide, there are only an estimated 500 of them.

Things look a bit better for bowhead whales: They live a lot further north and always near the brash ice line, which makes them basically inaccessible for regular tourists. Southern right whales are a lot easier to visit: Chances are best in Argentina, South Africa and southern Australia.

The worldwide known and frequently shared whale photo of a tiny, tiny human standing next to a really, really giant whale on the bottom of the sea shows a southern right whale, photographed by Brian Skerry.


Photo: Shutterstock/Dewald Kirsten

Northern and southern right whales can get 11 to 18 meters long, bowhead whales slightly bigger. Weight: Up to 100 tons.


Grayish black, sometimes brown with light spots on the bottom side and lower jaw. Northern and southern right whales have big calluses and pocks on their heads, bowhead whales don’t.


Plump, roundish body with a giant head, which mostly consists of the strongly bent mouth. The head makes up one third of the body.


Medium high, v-shaped blow. Reaches a height of up to 4 meters in two jets.


None of the right whales have a fin.


Sharply serrated, concave fluke. Up to 7 meters wide, about one third of the total body length.


Very slow swimmers. Despite their massive bodies, northern and southern right whales love to breach, bowhead whales sometimes also breach.


Mostly 1 to 3 minutes on the surface, then diving for 5 to 20 minutes. Can stay under water for more than an hour.


A few hundred northern right whales, approx. 7.500 southern right whales and 6.000 to 12.000 bowhead whales.


Photo: Shutterstock/Arnoud_Quanjer


Watching right whales can be very entertaining. They breach up to 10 times in a row or do a headstand and use their fluke as a sail.

Mostly, the animals travel in groups of 1 to 6, sometimes groups can amount up to 20 to 50 animals. Southern right whales are playful, curious animals, which often get close to boats.

They can be quite the acrobats: When jumping, they hoist one to two thirds of their body out of the water and crash back into the water after a slight turn on their back. Sometimes southern right whales do up to 10 jumps in a row. 

Or they do a headstand and use their fluke as a sail. Often, they splash their flippers or fluke in the water. Watching southern right whales can be very entertaining.

The blow of a right whale rises a good four meters in two jets. The V-shape of the blow can only be seen from behind.

Right whales remain on the surface for about 1 to 3 minutes, taking 4 to 6 breaths for dives of up to 20 minutes. The first thing to see, when surfacing, is the v-shaped blow.

A bowhead whale’s blowhole lies on a bump, so that two separated humps can be seen on the surface – head and back. Northern and southern right whales don’t have an elevated blowhole, presenting a whole, continuous body.

After a couple of breaths, the body gets bent to a big arc: Depending on the intended depth of the dive, the fluke is raised out of the water. Northern and southern right whales slightly turn their flukes.


Photo: Shutterstock/Tomas Kotouc


Photo: iStock/Nicola_Margaret

Where and when RIGHT WHALES

It’s highly improbable to meet a northern right whale (too few) or a bowhead whale (too far north). Chances for southern right whales are quite good in certain places, though.

Bowhead whales live in the Northern Arctic Sea, always close to the edge of the sea ice. They can mostly be found around Greenland, in the Hudson Bay, the Bering Street, the Chuckchi Sea, the Beaufort Sea and Okhotsk Sea. The Spitsbergen population is almost extinct.

Depending on the ice, there is seasonal migration (northwards in summer, southwards in winter). To meet bowhead whales, you have to go really, really far north in summer or try your luck in western Greenland in winter, when the pack ice border runs significantly further south.

Northern right whales live between the 25th and 60th northern parallel. Most of the few hundred surviving animals live in the northwestern Atlantic in front of the coasts of Canada and the USA. Chances of meeting them are extremely low.

Southern right whales live between the 20th and 55th southern parallel. They migrate regularly from their feeding grounds in the colder Antarctic waters in summer to warmer mating grounds further north.

Some hundred southern right whales spend their winter in front of the Valdes Peninsula, Argentina and the coasts of South Africa, Southern Australia and New Zealand. Important meeting and birth grounds are close the coast of Australia, South Africa and Southern America.

One of the best known areas to observe southern right whales is Hermanus in South Africa. Here you can see them quite well even from land.

Southern right whales can be encountered quite reliably in several places. For bowhead whales you have to travel very, very far north.

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