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Right whales are plump, slow-swimming whales with a palate lined with long black baleen and a head covered with callosities!

There are three species of right whales, but Piper’s species is represented by a tiny population in the North Atlantic.

Piper was first identified in January 1993 off the coast of Florida by the New England Aquarium. It is believed that she was 2 years old at the time.

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Back of a right whale showing several white spots and a hole-like scar.

On June 24, 2015, a right whale carcass is found drifting off the coast of Percé in Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula. The carcass was towed to shore two days later so that it could be examined by veterinarians.

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A crabbing boat tows the right whale carcass, which is floating on its back.

When Piper was found off the coast of the Gaspé Peninsula in 2015, it came as a big surprise. At the time, right whales foraged predominantly in the Bay of Fundy.

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Map of the East Coast of Canada and the United States. A yellow-shaded area runs along the coast from Florida to the Bay of Fundy. Another yellow area is found at the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula. A blue zone surrounds the island of Newfoundland and the remainder of the St. Lawrence.

Right whales owe their name to the whaling era, when they were considered the “right” whales to hunt.

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Sailboats and rowboats used for whaling.

In addition to being slow and portly, a right whale like Piper is also distinguished by its spout. Instead of forming a column or a plume like the spouts of most species, the blast of a right whale is V-shaped.

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Photo showing the top of a right whale’s head and its V-shaped spout.

If we can see whales blow, it is because, just like us, they must come to the surface to breath!

They are far better than us at holding their breath, however.

How long do whales dive?

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Dive time:
Harbour porpoise 1-5 minutes, max. 12 minutes
Sperm whale: 15 to 70 minutes, max 2 hours
Humpback whale: 8-15 minutes, max 30 minutes
North Atlantic right whale: 10-20 minutes, max 60 minutes

How do Piper and other whales hold their breath for so long?

In fact, whales don’t actually have to “hold” their breath; rather they have to think to breath... A little like we have to remember to eat when we get hungry.

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Right whale visible through the clear water with a calf at its side. The top of the head and blowhole break the water surface, but the nostrils are still closed.

How do Piper and other whales manage to hold their breath for so long?

Humans exchange 13-14% of the air in our lungs with every breath we take, while a whale replenishes approximately 85%.

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Diagram of the right whale’s respiratory system with blowhole, nasal passages, trachea and lungs. Transparent view of the front half of the whale’s body and its skeleton.

Where do whales keep their oxygen reserves when they dive?

Whales accumulate oxygen directly in their muscles thanks to a molecule called myoglobin.

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Schematic diagram of myoglobin, which binds oxygen to the whale’s muscles.

How do Piper and other whales ration their oxygen reserves?

When a whale dives, its heart rate slows. This allows it to redistribute oxygenated blood from the heart to the other muscles that it needs to swim and capture its food.

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Diagram of the diving trajectory of a right whale. At the surface, its heart beats 35 times a minute, while in deep water, it slows to 4 beats a minute.

After taking a deep breath, Piper dives in pursuit of her prey. She is not alone: humans have also lowered their fishing gear in order to feed themselves...

When Piper forages in an area where fishing boats are operating, she runs the risk of getting herself enmeshed in ropes, nets or traps...

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Diagram illustrating a fish trap on the seabed tethered to a buoy at the surface. A right whale encounters rope in the water column.

In the course of her lifetime, Piper got herself entangled on at least two occasions. And she’s not the only one! Over 85% of all right whales have already found themselves in this situation.

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Photo showing the head of a right whale with a rope wrapped around its upper jaw.

An entanglement can impair a whale’s ability to move, feed, reproduce and can even cause death.

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Aerial view of a right whale dragging fishing rope.

What can be done to lower the risk of entanglement?

Diagram comparing traditional traps to a on-call buoy. The latter is kept on the seabed until a signal sent by a boat causes it to float to the surface.

Use rope-less fishing gear

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Image of whales under a magnifying glass.

Refrain from deploying fishing gear in areas that are heavily used by whales.

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What can I do to help reduce entanglements?

Look for sustainably-harvested seafood.

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Drawing of a fishmonger with a variety of seafood for sale.

Now that you’ve heard Piper’s story, let’s go meet the other whales!

See the skeleton in 3D
Fact sheet
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