The Right Whale is so often in the news of late as its numbers in the North Atlantic decline ever further. Throughout history this species has perhaps been the most familiar of its kind, and it has been said that it was called the Right Whale because it was the right whale to catch. The explanation is attributed to whalemen, who were purported to describe the Right Whale as being found close to shore, swimming slowly on the surface, docile, staying afloat after dying, and having a high blubber content… thus the right whale for their pursuit.
The term Right Whale was first used in print in 1725,1 but as in other early references no indication is given as to why the name is used. While the apocryphal explanation above is rationale and plausible, as early as 1766 an article in the Connecticut Courant stated “the truth is no one actually knows how the right whale got its name.”(2) The accepted explanation is found throughout twentieth-century literature. Historical accounts and examinations of the whaling industry invariably present this explanation, and in the adventure novels set on whaleships, the old tars always spin this yarn to the green hands. It is repeated in every dictionary and encyclopedia entry, has been adopted by Wikipedia, and is even perpetuated in NOAA bulletins. Most telling, it is repeated with a knowing nod by most every curator, scholar, collector, and dealer of whaling antiques and folk art. So it must be true…
…but it is almost surely not! The term “right,” as used here, was meant as true, proper, or correct. This idea has not been entirely ignored: Eric Dolan in his Leviathan cites John Spears (1908) in opining that Right just as likely meant true or proper, meaning typical of the group.2, 3 Melville himself describes how the Right Whale was variously called by whalemen “The Whale, the Greenland whale, the blubber whale, the great whale, the true whale, the right whale.”4 Clearly, our Right Whale was originally considered the true or common, bog standard whale.
The North Atlantic Right Whale is today properly called Eubaleana glacialis. It was originally classified by Walter Charleton as Balaena vulgarus (the common
whale) in 1668, and formally by Linnaeus as Balaena sp. in 1758.5 It is interesting, and I think very significant to note, that the word balaena meant simply “whale” (without the modern connotation distinguishing between baleen and toothed whales). The word is still used in French to just mean whale. Even under its current nomenclature as Eubalaena, the Right Whale remains the type species for the genus: for zoologists, this means that this species contains the type specimen by which the genus is defined and contrasted against all other types of whales. Phylogenetically and grammatically, the Right Whale means the common whale.
So how did the apocryphal explanation become so accepted? The time scale here provides a clue. This whale was first hunted by the Basque fishermen in the eleventh Century.6 Throughout the ensuing Middle Ages and Renaissance there was little advancement in our understanding of these animals beyond what was first inaccurately laid out by the ancient Greeks and Romans.5 Totally separate species were confused, anatomies were wild, and they were still thought of as a very strange type of fish. Even the whalers themselves had little understanding of the true nature of the animals they were hunting: only the dorsal backs of whales were seen in the water, and those cast ashore were collapsed and in some stage of rot. Whalers were not good witnesses.
We are also talking about early days here. Remember that the name Right Whale was only first documented in 1725, and the Right Whale fishery as practiced by Nantucketers and Long Islanders was effectively over by 1750.7 So the anecdotal explanation of whalemen referring to the right whale to catch is being told and retold many years, perhaps generations, after that particular fishery was long over. Any story becomes fuzzy over time, and true to form this particular fish tale does not bear up well under close scrutiny. Let us examine the explanation once again: this whale is said to be found close to shore, swim slowly on the surface, be docile in behavior, stay afloat after dying, and have a high blubber content to yield a large volume of oil.
The Right Whale is found relatively close to shore. The North Atlantic Right Whale is found predominantly close to peninsulas and bays, and remains on the continental shelf; in contrast, the South Atlantic Right Whale ranges far offshore during much of the year.8, 9 The Right Whale does feed often at the surface (as do many other baleen whales), but is also known to feed in midwater and on the bottom.8, 9 While it is true this natural history would prove favorable to whalers, these traits are also the exact reasons why this species would be the most observed large whale in earlier years, and thus the logical type species for the Common Whale.
The Right Whale also appears at first to be a slow swimmer: unless a mother with calf, the species has been measured swimming at 6 km/hr.10 This is indeed slow in comparison to the fast Blue Whale which swims at 14 km/hr; however, 6 km/hr is the same speed typical for the Sperm Whale. The Humpback Whale, an undisputed speed demon amongst cetaceans, is known to swim at between 5 and 15 km/hr and can sprint at 25 km/hr. It is very important to note, however, that when feeding, the Humpback is typically observed swimming at only 2 to 5.5 km/hr.10, 11 The criteria of speed does not hold up well to support the anecdotal explanation.
Is the Right Whale a docile animal? Well yes, in comparison to the large, toothed, and notoriously aggressive Sperm Whale. But the behavior observed in an undisturbed whale skimming swarms of copepods and krill by the mouthful must be expected to be quite different than that encountered when a 100,000-pound whale is attacked with a harpoon or two. Right whales are extremely acrobatic, known for frequently breaching and jumping clear of the water. They are also well known for lobtailing, or slapping the tail flukes down hard upon the surface. These are behaviors pre-adapted to retaliate against attacking harpooners. Whalemen did in fact know of Right Whales smashing and sinking whaleboats, and there are a number of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century engravings showing such events as drawn from the eye-witness accounts of whalers.
Right Whales were said to stay afloat after dying, made buoyant by their thick layer of blubber. It is true that they do tend to float after dying. However, the Sperm Whale is also positively buoyant and floats after death,13, 14, 15 making it just as much “the right whale to catch.” In contrast, most whales turn out to be slightly negatively buoyant, making it physiologically easier and less energy-consuming for them to dive and maintain position at depth. But a closer look at Right Whales reveals that ten to thirty percent of them did sink, at least in the North Pacific stock.12 In comparison, the Humpback Whale was notorious among whalers for sinking like a rock and so was among the least desirable prey… but the reality is that only fifty percent of them sank.17 The difference between thirty and fifty percent is a pretty short spread to warrant the opposing honors of being the best and the worst, the Right versus the Wrong whale to catch.
Lastly we come to the yield of whale oil…was the Right Whale preferred for a greater yield of oil? Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century whalers using the tryworks technology of their day were able to harvest on average forty-two to forty-five barrels of oil from a single Right Whale.16 The average Sperm Whale yielded forty-five to fifty barrels and included the vastly superior and much more valuable spermaceti oil. There is no need to even consider species like the Blue Whale, which averaged 120 barrels, to conclude that the Right Whale had no advantage for harvesting oil.
The apocryphal explanation of the Right Whale coming by its name just does not bear up under credible scrutiny. The simpler explanation, the long-standing fact that this whale was indeed known for centuries as the correct, true, proper, common, or right Whale, is in no way a disappointment. We are left contemplating an awe-inspiring animal whose very name is not only a symbol of all of its kind but whose name also recalls the entire history of our study of whales and our ever-evolving understanding of their place in the world, and by extension, our own place in the web of life.
(1) Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 2003.
(2) Dolan, Eric Jay. 2007. Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America. W. W. Norton & Company.
(3) Spears, John Randolph. 1908. The Story of the New England Whalers. Macmillan Co.
(4) Melville, Herman. 1851. Moby Dick, or, The Whale. Harper and Brothers. (Chapter XXXII).
(5) Romeroa, Aldemaro. 2012. When Whales Became Mammals: The Scientific Journey of Cetaceans from Fish to Mammals in the History of Science. In: ROMEROA. & E.O. KEITH(eds), NewApproaches to the Study of Marine Mammals (Chapter 1).
(6) Aguilar, A. 1986. A Review of Old Basque Whaling and its Effect on the Right Whales (Eubalaena glacialis) of the North Atlantic. Reports of the International Whaling Commission (special issue) 10: 191-199.
(7) Tønnessen, Johan Nicolay and Arne Odd Johnsen. 1982. The History of Modern Whaling. University of California Press.
(8) Kenney, Robert D. (February 26, 2009). North Atlantic, North Pacific and Southern Right Whales. In Perrin, William F., Wursig, Bernd and J.G.M. ‘Hans’ Thewissen, (eds.). Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Academic Press. pp. 806–813.
(9) Crane, J.; Scott, R. (2002). Eubalaena glacialis: North Atlantic right whale: Information. Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.
(10) Hain, James H.W., Hampp, Joy D., McKenney, Sheila A., Albert, Julie A. and Robert D. Kenney. 2013. Swim Speed, Behavior, and Movement of North Atlantic Right Whales (Eubalaena glacialis) in Coastal Waters of Northeastern Florida, USA. PLoS One.
(11) Anonymous. 2011. How does a Blue Whale move? National Geographic 26 March 2011.
(12) Scarff, J.E. 2001. Preliminary Estimates of Whaling-Induced Mortality in the 19th Century Pacific Northern Right Whale. Journal of Cetacean Research Management (Special Issue 2): 261-260.
(13) Braham, H.W. and D.W. Rice. 1984. The Right Whale, Balaena glacialis. Marine Fisheries Revue 46: 38–44.
(14) Gosho, M.E., Rice, D.W. and J.M. Breiwick. 1984. The Sperm Whale, Physeter macrocephalus. Marine Fisheries Revue 46: 54–64.
(15) Nowacek, D.P., Johnson, M.P., Tyack, P.L., Shorter, K.A., McLellan, W.A. and D.A. Pabst. 2001. Buoyant balaenids: the ups and downs of buoyancy in right whales. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 268:1811–1816.
(16) Laist, David W. 2017. North Atlantic Right Whales – From Hunted Leviathan to Conservation Icon. John Hopkins University Press.
(17) Smithsonian Institute. 2020. On the Water 3: Fishing for a Living, 1840 – 1920.