A school of Northern Rightwhale Dolphins
From the NUS Dolphin Study Group
Etienne Douaze <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Permission obtained on 30 July 1998, Email message.
- Northern Rightwhale Dolphin
- Southern Rightwhale Dolphin
The name "rightwhale dolphin" supposedly comes from the fact that these
species and the right whale both lack dorsal fins. Aside from that, the two
species are not similar at all. The right whale is a huge, slow-swimming, and
ponderous mysticete, while the rightwhale dolphin is possibly the most slender
of all cetaceans, often described as "eel like." Melville, the writer of
Moby Dick, attributed the common name to the dolphins' frequent
appearance with right whales. Both the northern and southern rightwhale
dolphins have extremely narrow tail stocks and flukes that are no wider than
the widest part of the body. Rightwhale dolphins are often found in groups
of around 50 individuals.
(Click for larger version)
Northern Rightwhale Dolphin
The name Lissodelphis borealis means "smooth dolphin of the north
wind." The northern rightwhale dolphin comes from the Northern Pacific, in a
crescent-shaped region corresponding to the moderate temperate currents. It
has not been seen entering tropical waters, and only rarely are individuals
observed in subarctic or the coldest temperate waters. The rightwhale dolphin
is not known from the mid-Pacific. The dorsal side is jet black, while the
ventral side has a unique white pattern. A sharp demaracation separates the
two color regions. The flippers are all black, while the dorsal fin is black
on the upper side and white on the lower side, with a trailing border of gray.
Fully grown northern rightwhale dolphins are normally around 3 meters in
length. The jaws are narrow and pincerlike. It does not appear to be
terribly abundant, and due to its rarity and offshore habitat, it was not well
known until recently. There are only a few observations of its behavior in
the wild, as it is rather difficult to approach. Northern rightwhale dolphins
are very quick and active, frequently leaping out of the water. It is
possible that both the eastern and western populations migrate north during
the summer months, as it is known to prefer cooler waters. It is often seen
with other cetaceans, especially Pacific white-sided dolphins,
pilot whales, Dall
porpoises, and common dolphins. There are
records of individuals riding the pressure waves of gray whales, but the
nothern rightwhale dolphin does not appear to be an enthusiastic bow rider.
When together with the white-sided dolphin, it has been seen riding the bow
waves of ships, but it otherwise stays away from ships. Herd sizes seem to
range form 1 to 3000, and groups have been observed jumping in unison.
(Click for larger version)
Southern Rightwhale Dolphin
The southern rightwhale dolphin has a circumpolar distribution in the
southern hemisphere, located almost entirely in temperate waters. It is an
offshore species with a remote habitat. Not quite as slender as its northern
counterpart, it is the only other blue-water dolphin to lack a dorsal fin.
There are only a few published photographs, but it does not seem to have the
narrow, pointed jaws of the nothern rightwhale dolphin. The head looks
heavier and more substantial, but that may only be a result of its white
coloration. The color pattern is unique, with a shiny black dorsal side and a
snowy white ventral side. The white comes up much higher on the sides than
the northern rightwhale dolphin; in the latter the white area is only a
ventral streak. The face is white, and the black dorsal coloration meets in a
widow's peak just forward of the blowhole. The flippers are white on both
sides. There is often a broad black region on the black part of the flippers.
The thoracic region is flattened, and the body is wider than it is tall. The
flattened body may be a stablalizer for not having a dorsal fin, but the
northern rightwhale dolphin does not have this feature. The southern
rightwhale dolphin is somewhat smaller than the northern, with a maximum
length of 2.1 meters, and most individuals smaller than that. One observer
noted that while swimming, the southern rightwhale dolphin looks like a giant
penguin. Southern rightwhale dolphins like to associate with dusky dolphins.
Baker, Mary L. Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises of the World. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1987.
Carwardine, Mark. Eyewitness Handbooks: Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises. New York: Dorling Kindersley Ltd., 1995.
Ellis, Richard. Dolphins and Porpoises. New York: Alfred & Knopf, Inc., 1982.
Klinowska, Margaret. Dolphins, Porpoises, and Whales of the World: The IUCN Red Data Book. Gland, Switzerland: World Conservation Union, 1991.