Right whales in the western North Atlantic are migratory animals. They routinely return to certain locations at similar times each year. Researchers have been able to sketch the pattern and seasonality of parts of that annual migration using photographs of individually identified animals taken along the route. For example, some right whales travel from productive northern waters where food is abundant to southern waters for calving. It has been suggested that those whales undertake the 2250 km journey to the warm and shallow waters off the southeast United States to provide a more suitable habitat for their newborn. Individuals observed in the calving ground are mostly pregnant females, mothers with young calves and juveniles. The actual migration path is not well understood, but data from right whales equipped with satellite-monitored transmitters and sighting data suggest that some right whales travel within 50 km of the coast.
Current distribution and known migration route of western North Atlantic right whales, including critical habitats or conservation areas, and areas of primary and occasional sightings.
Researchers have a basic understanding of right whale migration, but there are several gaps in our knowledge. Generally, right whales move from the only known winter calving ground in the coastal waters off Florida and Georgia (also known as the Georgia Bight) to spring feeding grounds in the Great South Channel and Cape Cod Bay. Although the calving grounds have been well studied and there are a few whales seen in Cape Cod Bay in the winter months, only a small percentage of the population is seen and the wintering ground for the rest of the species is unknown. In summer and fall, right whales migrate into Canadian waters, mostly to nursery and feeding grounds in the Bay of Fundy and Roseway Basin. Yet a portion of the population is not seen in either of these two summering areas, including about one-third of the known mothers and their calves during the year they were born. Either another nursing ground exists or some right whales are more transient in summer and fall. Two possible locations for a second summer nursery area are the waters of the eastern Scotian Shelf and the Gulf of St. Lawrence near the southern coast of the Gaspé Peninsula. By late October most right whales have departed Canadian waters, although in some years there are occasional sightings through the end of December.
Hidalgo in the Irminger Sea, southwest
In addition to the areas described above, right whales have also been seen near the eastern edge of the Grand Banks and on the Cape Farewell Ground - an area southeast of Greenland - and in the waters west of Iceland. But due to the great expense and difficulty of surveying such remote areas, research efforts in these more distant waters have been sporadic. Generally, right whale studies have been concentrated in regions where researchers are likely to find many individuals: only occasionally are funds available to survey outside known habitats. Some calving females go to these northern areas and these areas may also be important nursery grounds for a small segment of the population.
The 51 m sailing vessel, Sedna IV, in search
of the "lost" right whales.
In July 2003, the New England Aquarium teamed up with Jean Lemire and the film company Glacialis Productions (Montréal, Quebec) to conduct a search of the Cape Farewell Ground for "lost" right whales 1. After two weeks of searching from the deck of the 51 m sailing vessel, Sedna IV, a North Atlantic right whale was spotted by Marilyn Marx and Moira Brown. Hidalgo, as the whale was named, had never been seen before and was the only right whale seen during the expedition. Whether Hidalgo was alone or with other, unseen, right whales is not known.
1 Whale Mission: Keepers of Memory. 2005. Directed by Jean Lemire and Caroline Underwood. Produced by Jean Lemire. Copyright Glacialis Productions Inc.