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North Atlantic Right Whales Extinct in Irish and European Waters

North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis)

Northern Right Whale

Northern Right Whale / Nordcaper (Eubalaena glacialis)

North Atlantic Right Whale

The North Atlantic Right Whale

Are Northern Right Whales Extinct in Irish and European Waters?

Is it time to officially declare the extinction of the former  stock of Northern Right Whales (Eubalaena glacialis) in the NE Atlantic? Would you like to join an exploratory 10 hr. boat trip in early June, 2024 from Ventry Harbour, County Kerry along their former migratory route 10 to 12 miles off the Irish coast baseline to try and spot this elusive, or locally extinct in NE Atlantic,  species?

The evolutionary history of the Northern Right Whale goes back a long way, to around 10 million years ago, before the time when north and south America were co-joined by geological forces that separated the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic ocean and their present "Critically endangered" status on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (2020) is living proof of the effects of the Anthropocene on animals that have existed for millions of years.

Despite the fact that there have been no verified sightings of Northern Right Whales - either live stranded or dead stranded - in Ireland for over 100 years, they are still listed by the IWDG on their list of whales in Ireland while at the same time the Dwarf Sperm whale (Kogia sima) is not listed as a species despite the fact that a pregnant female live-stranded in Glengariff, Co. Cork on 01.05.2022, was re-floated by volunteer members of the IWDG, but unfortunately dead-stranded the following day.

It is definitely time to revise the list of the number of different whales in Ireland [www.marinetours.ie - Wildlife log / Whales in Ireland: 20 different kinds of Whales in Ireland! ] by adding the species that has live-stranded here recently like the Dwarf Sperm whale and perhaps, sadly, taking the species that has not been seen for over 100 yrs. off the list - the Northern Right Whale. The last time that Northern Right Whales were recorded in Irish waters was by the whaling companies operating off the Inishkea islands and Westport at the start of the last century when 18 were recorded by the whaling companies between 1908 - 1922 [ www.marinetours.ie - Wildlife log / 100 years of Irish Whaling ] when 5 were killed in 1908; 5 in 1909; 4 in 1910 and another 4 in 1910- by a separate whaling company. After that none were caught by the whaling companies up to 1922 when the whaling companies logs cease so it is likely that they are extinct in Irish waters since then.

 Blasket Islands Eco Marine Tours would like to do at least one exploratory survey trip, or preferably more, along the the contours (10 to 12 miles off the coastline) and time of the year (the first two weeks in June) that Northern Right Whales were known to migrate along the west coast of Ireland (Irish Whales and Whaling; James Fairley 1981; pp 35 -40) on their way north to Norway (which has officially declared them extinct in their  waters.) We urgently need sponsor(s) for these trips which would also be very interesting for bird watchers ( pelagic bird watching trips) and sightings of other cetaceans and interesting marine wildlife. Please contact the author or use the "Contact us" form on www.marinetours.ie

The Story of the Northern Right Whale

The story began about 10 million years ago when the Balaenidae Family appears to have subdivided into two different genera - Balaenae (Bowhead whale) and Eubalaena (Right whale). At this time an ocean flowed between North and South America, where Panama is now, but little by little the Pacific tectonic plate pushed up and under (subsumed) the edges of the Caribbean plate forming numerous volcanic islands and over millions of years mud runoffs from the land masses north and south washed up on the islands until eventually an isthmus was formed at Panama which joined  the two continents together. This completely changed ocean currents on the Pacific and Atlantic oceans e.g. forming the present-day Gulf Stream and also totally changed weather patterns. Many marine species were isolated in different oceans while many land species could now go freely north or south to either North or South America.
About 5 million years ago the right whale genus evolved into three separate species, isolated in three different oceans. Killer whales are undergoing the same process of speciation in our oceans today in real time. The North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) moved north of the warming equatorial and tropical waters to the high latitudes of the North Atlantic; the Pacific Right Whale (Eubalaena japonica) also moved north from the warming equatorial regions but were separated from the North Atlantic Right Whales by the newly co-joined American continent; the Southern Right Whales (Eubalaena australis) moved south from the warming equatorial regions and remained far south of the equator although some vagrants from this group have been found further north of the equator; The Bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) -  the other branch of the family - moved even further north into Arctic regions and became a specialist hunter there with the capacity to break through up to 9 inches thickness of ice on order to breath.

Then along came man (Homo sapiens) and the Anthropocene, and all changed.
There is DNA fossil evidence from kitchen middens excavated that the Inuit people from Greenland hunted the Bowhead whale about 4,000 years ago and that it was a major part of their diet. The knowledge of indigenous people should not be under estimated, and they knew that Bowhead whales slept at the water surface in sheltered bays (then, before they became familiar with humans (!), but  not anymore) and that if they sneaked up on them  in their kayaks they could deliver a mortal blow with a single spear driven in to the heart of the whale just behind the flipper. This was the first sign that the paradise of "Whaledom" that had lasted for millions of years was about to end. The same fate awaited Woolley Mammoths  and Mastodons and other mega fauna that the organising power and inventiveness of Homo sapiens wiped out.

North Atlantic Right Whales were hunted by Norse whalers in the 9th century but it was just recently in the 11th century that the real fate of the Right Whales in particular was sealed, closely followed by the near extinction of all whales until oil was discovered in Texas in 1869 and 1901 (commercially) to use instead of whale oil extracted from blubber and plastic was substituted for "whale bone" in corsets - which are no longer popular or in fashion - and whaling for the diminishing populations of remaining whales became commercially unviable. In the 1930s some conservation measures were put in place but for many species like the Right Whales and the Blue Whales it is a case of too little, too late. 
The Irish authority on the historical references to the hunting of the Right Whales starting with the Biscayan fishermen in the 11th century to their demise in the early 20th century is Seán A. O'Callaghen in "North Atlantic Right Whales (Eubalaena glacialis) in Irish waters: 1300 -1987" Biology and Environment: Proceedings of the Royal Irish Society. Vol. 119B, No 2-3; pp 111 - 122 (12 pages).

When these Right Whales were exterminated in the Bay of Biscay and its surrounds over the centuries by Basque whalers, they were pursued all the way across the Atlantic to the east coasts of Canada and North America. That part of the world then became a centre for whaling and eventually pursued all the other species of whales all over the world until some populations almost disappeared. Although some populations have recovered slightly like the Minke whale and the Humpback whale, other whales like the Bowhead Whale, North Atlantic Right Whale;  the Pacific Right Whale; the Sei Whale and the Blue whale are all now critically endangered and some species like the North Atlantic Right Whale possibly gone beyond the tipping point for species regeneration and survival.
The Southern Right Whales appear to have made a recovery which may be because they had a bigger surviving gene pool and because there is less marine traffic in that part of the Southern Ocean compared to the North Atlantic and North Pacific Ocean that Northern Right Whales frequent and marine strikes and acoustic and sonar pollution are a major cause of mortality for this slow moving and slow breeding species.


The answer seems to be that Right Whales are called right whales for all the wrong reasons!
The first mention of the term Right Whale was in Nantucket around 1725 (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary,2003) and obviously these animals were not called that by previous European whalers. Herman Melville (author of "Moby Dick") himself states that the whale was called by whaling men "the Whale, the Greenland whale, the blubber whale, the great whale, the true whale, the right whale" and this seems to be the true origin of the term as the whale was so obvious and common, at the time.

The fact that the whale swam so close to shore, especially headlands and promontories where zooplankton shoals swirled; approached ships; was slow moving; and due to the high content of blubber relative to body mass (40%) and the low density of the blubber which meant that the carcass stayed floating in the water when it was killed; and the high percentage of oil obtained from the blubber (up to 20 tonnes of oil); plus the fact that it had up to 500 long baleen plates ("whalebone") each up to 9 ft long in its enormous mouth; all meant that the commercial connotation of the "right whale to kill" persisted rather than the original connotation that it was  a true or common or right whale by which all other whales could be judged.

This is an unfortunate nomenclature which many feel uncomfortable using, but once it is put in its true linguistic and historical context as the "true" whale or the "real" whale or the "common" whale or "standard" whale or "good" or "right" whale then the sting can be taken out of the name. The Right whale was also referred to as the Biscayan whale and the Dutch whaler's term for the whale was  the Nordcaper ("the whale from Norway's North Cape") and it does sound like a very appropriate term but to try and change the name now smacks of revisionism and "wokeness"so it seems, unfortunately, that the name North Atlantic Right Whale will have to stay as it's watery epitaph. [The Latin name "Eubalaena glacialis" translates as "The proper / true whale of the icy / frozen regions.]


Where do you start describing a creature so fantastic as the North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis)?

It is probably always best to start at the beginning so here are ten random facts about the North Atlantic Right Whale.

1. Maximum length: 18m
[An average bus is 12m long and carries 50 passengers so 75 people would fit comfortably inside a Northern Right whale!]

2. Maximum weight: 70 tonnes
[That's ten times the weight of the biggest male African savannah elephant]

3. Maximum age: 70 yrs.
[ Their closely related relative, the Bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus), can live to over 200 years and is the longest-lived of all marine mammals and like the long-lived Greenland shark (which is a fish, not a cetacean) takes life very ,very slow under the ice.

4 They have an uneven V or heart shaped blow or "spout" from two blowholes which is about 5m high.

5. They have  a large head which is about 25% of their body length, with callosities (wart like extrusions) on the rostrum (nose), lower jaw and around the eyes which are usually infested with barnacles and whale lice. They have a "bonnet" of callosities on their head directly in front of their blowholes. The callosities may appear white, yellow, orange or pink (!) depending on which type of whale lice are present. These callosities may have defensive or even sexual purposes. Fairley says in his book  Irish Whales and Whaling: "Pictures of right whales look less disturbing turned upside down!" so obviously he thought that they were scary looking.

6. Northern Right Whales usually spend from ten minutes to one hour underwater when they "sound".

7. Their prey is mainly zooplankton, copepods (Calanus finmarchicus), krill and euphausiids which they skim feed with their open mouths.

8. North Atlantic Right Whales tongues weigh about 1.5 tonnes, which makes them vulnerable to killer whale attacks, as whale tongue (especially from calves) is their favourite food; and their testes weigh over 1 tonne which means that they have  the largest testes in the animal kingdom, even bigger than the blue whales, which are the size of the original VW Beetle car!
Female North Atlantic Right Whales are polygamous and males are not aggressive, relying on their huge testes sperm contents to compete with rivals. This type of animal reproductive strategy is called "sperm competition".

9. Reproduction: males and females are sexually mature at a length of 15m which they usually achieve at about 5 to 10  years depending on the quality of their food resources.. The females have one calf every four years so replacement to the population is very slow. As there  are only about 250 - 350 max. North Atlantic Right Whales left in the North Atlantic, the majority of whom are males or juveniles, with only about 20% of these (50 to 70) mature breeding females, some experts believe that the species will become functionally extinct in the North Atlantic by 2040.

10. The (former) population of right whales in the NE Atlantic may have been a sub-species of the population resident in the NW Atlantic (a bit like the Killer whales "John Coe" and "Aquarius" of the Scottish West Coast Community of Killer Whales are the last two remaining killer whales belonging to a bigger (extinct)  group) and they may have been supplemented by vagrants from the larger community in the NW Atlantic.


The answer is: Critically endangered (probably extinct in NE Atlantic and in near danger of extinction in the NW Atlantic).

With an estimated population of maximum 250 individuals left, all in the NW Atlantic and none in the NE Atlantic, from a pre-whaling estimated population of about 21,000 there is no prospect that Eubalaena glacialis will survive as a species in the North Atlantic because:

1. Their slow reproductive patterns (one calf every four years) mitigate against recovery from very small adult female numbers at present. Also, "Foraging habitat of North Atlantic right whales has declined in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada, and may now be insufficient for successful reproduction" ( Endangered Species Research: February 2021 Vol. 44: 133 - 136 K. Gavrilchuk et al
"Long-lived migratory megafauna such as whales that rely on memory of long-term average phonologies to locate quality food patches will need to adapt to altered distribution and abundance of prey species (to survive)." (B. Abrahms et al 2019) which means that they would probably need to move further north to Labrador to pursue their optimum prey species in sufficient abundance and condition if they are to have any chance of surviving as a species.

2. They are very vulnerable to ship strikes. Because the Gulf of Maine has been so adversely affected by climate change and warming ocean temperatures which affect the distribution of the prey copepod species Calanus finnmarchicus, the Northern right whales have moved further north to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada and are extremely vulnerable to ship strikes in this area of heavy maritime traffic.

3. They are vulnerable to entanglement in fishing gear, especially static gear, including nets, lobster and crab pot lines which are made of much stronger synthetic material than previously and they are also vulnerable to ingestion of fishing gear and garbage as they are filter feeders and swim through the water column with their very large mouths open.

4. They are also vulnerable to sound pollution and sonar disruption.


In the space of an extremely short space of evolutionary time (since the 9th century A.D.) we are on the brink of making a species extinct that has existed for millions of years (5 to 10 million years).

It is extremely important, from a scientific point of view, to acknowledge this extinction if, and when, it happens, or if it happens locally (as in the Irish and European waters), so that we can realistically measure the real effects of the Anthropocene era on our wildlife and biodiversity.

Only by ascertaining when the extinction occurs locally can we realise the effects of our activities on the natural world and try to adopt some mitigating measures to stop the cycle of extinctions in the natural world, of which we are an integral part.

Michael (Mick) Sheeran   12.04.2024

Log of the Whale Watching Tour Boat M.V. "Blasket Princess"


Comparative Longevity of Mammals:

Weasel: 1-3  yrs.
Hedgehog: 3 yrs.
Wolverine: 12 yrs.
Tiger: 14 yrs.
Brown Bear: 25 yrs.
Lowland Tapir: 30 yrs.
Western Gorilla: 35 yrs.
Brandt's Bat: 41  yrs.
Humans (1950): 47 yrs.
Elephant: 56 yrs.
Humans (2022):72 yrs.
Bowhead Whale: 200 yrs.

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