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Northern Right Whale

Northern Right Whale

Northern Right Whale

The northern right whale is one of the most critically endangered marine mammals with estimates of approximately 300 right whales remaining in the North Atlantic. Adult right whales are medium sized, 45-55 feet long (14-17 meters); calves are 15-20 feet long (4.5-6 meters) and are rarely without their mothers. Right whales have distinctive “V-shaped” blows, no dorsal fin, short and broad flippers, and deeply notched tail flukes with smooth trailing edges. They have black skin with rough patches (or callosities) on their heads. In autumn, a portion of the female right whale population migrates to the warmer, shallow coastal waters of the southeastern United States to give birth to their calves. Because of this, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) designated an area off the Georgia and Florida coasts as a critical habitat and winter calving ground and nursery area for the migratory whales.

HabitatParts of the habitat coincide with shipping lanes for Mayport, FL, a major U.S. Navy and civilian port, as well as offshore operating areas where Navy units conduct exercises. Since the right whale is very slow (averages 1-3 knots) and is positively buoyant and thus floats readily, the greatest threat these giants face is collision with ships and injury from ship propellers. During the `95-`96 calving season, at least five northern right whale carcasses (three of which were calves) were sighted floating in the open ocean or washed ashore. One death was attributed to a ship strike and the exact cause of death for the other four was undetermined.


The current effort to locate northern right whales involves aerial surveillance of the critical habitat of which Navy contributes one-third of the cost. This method is not completely reliable since visual detection is limited by adverse weather, heavy seas, and night time. The Southeast U.S. Implementation Team for the Recovery of the Northern Right Whale and the Commander, Naval Base, Jacksonville, inquired of the feasibility of using the Navy’s remote sensing capabilities for real-time tracking of right whale movements, capabilities developed during the Cold War. Thus the Right Whale Monitoring Project was born.

Bottom ArrayThe goal of the project is to use existing Navy technology and locating methods to detect, identify, and track northern right whales within the designated critical habitat and Navy exercise areas. The project consists of three approaches. The first takes advantage of technology developed to track submarines. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) is using ultra-sensitive hydrophones — underwater microphones — to listen for right whale vocalizations. A fixed, bottom-mounted, passive acoustic array was installed off Jacksonville Beach. The array is composed of a three-mile truck line connecting the shore to a 1.5-mile square-shaped array, five hydrophones on each side. Processing of the signals received by the array is accomplished at the Naval Atlantic Meteorology and Oceanography Facility, Naval Air Station, Jacksonville. When a right whale is detected, its location is forwarded to the Navy’s Fleet Area Control and Surveillance Facility (FACSFAC) who in turn sends the report to the civilian Early Warning System (EWS). The EWS warns all ships in the area of the right whale sightings so they can avoid the animals.

Right whales have distinctive vocalizations, as do all marine mammals. Samples of dolphin and whale calls can be heard by clicking on the names under the pictures. As you can hear, dolphin and the various whale species vocalize in different “languages” just as people from different countries do.