A northern right whale… Dolphin?!

Did you know that sea serpents are real? Well, maybe not the traditional gigantic sea-living reptiles. But a first glance at the Northern right whale dolphin (Lissodelphis borealis) may leave you asking yourself, “What exactly am I looking at?” 

In this post, we will meet a funky little dolphin species from the North Pacific! 

Northern right whale dolphin
Two Northern Right Whale Dolphins photographed off Monterey — Credit: Robin Gwen Agarwal via Flickr

Why do we call them right whale dolphins?

As their name suggests, these dolphins live in the North Pacific in temperate waters from Japan to California, in contrast to the Southern right whale dolphin (Lissodelphis peronii), which lives in circumpolar waters of the Southern Ocean. Scientists decided to call both species are called “Right Whale Dolphins” due to their black-and-white markings and lack of dorsal fin, vaguely resembling the right whales (genus Eubalaena). The right whale dolphin’s genus name, Lissodelphis, very appropriately means “smooth dolphin” for this reason too.

Close-ish relatives of the Northern right whale dolphin include the Cephalorhynchus dolphins and the various species of white-sided dolphins.

A long, snake-like body

Northern right whale dolphins (which are toothed whales) measure anywhere from 2 – 3 meters (about 6.5 – 10 feet long) and weigh 59 – 115 kgs (130 – 254 pounds). They are jet black with white markings on their underside between their pectoral fins and at the tip of their beak (rostrum). What makes them stand out, though, is their lack of a dorsal fin paired with their proportionately small flukes. It makes them look like sea serpents. 

Northern right whale dolphin
Two Northern right whale dolphins breaching — Credit: Andrew Smith

Is the Northern right whale dolphin threatened?

The Northern right whale dolphin is considered to be “Least Concern” as evaluated by the IUCN Red List. Still, in reality, they are so cryptic that most populations are considered to be data deficient. The Northern right whale dolphin is a highly pelagic species. Like many dolphin species, it suffers from high-seas drift-net fisheries targeting Japanese flying squid and albacore tuna, for example. Indeed, these pelagic dolphins sometimes get caught in the nets and suffocate underwater.

Despite their mysterious nature, scientists believe the species is relatively abundant. Though not all populations have been assessed, the population native to the California-Oregon-Washington Economic Exclusive Zone of the United States is estimated to number around 26,000 animals. Like many cetacean species, the Northern right whale dolphin relies upon small fish and seasonal squid populations for food. However, experts believe climate change might affect prey availability for most dolphin populations, including the Northern right whale dolphin.

Watchin’ the Sun Set in Monterey

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is likely the best place on Earth to see this species, especially during periods when coldwater currents press into the Bay. Otherwise, these dolphins usually live very far from shore in the open ocean. The best way to see them would be to spend as much time as you can on the water – this advice is pretty solid for any other whale species, though! 

Interestingly this species is rarely encountered alone. According to whale-watching operators in Monterey, they usually hang out in a mixed pod with Pacific white-sided dolphins. Both species are “boat-friendly” and will readily approach whale-watching vessels. Some of these mixed-species pods can number in the thousands of individuals, stretching for several miles.

Northern right whale dolphin
Sometimes, Northern right whale dolphins can be seen with Pacific white-sided dolphins — Credit: Andrew Smith

While the Pacific white-sided dolphin breaks the surface with their distinct curved (falcate) dorsal fin, Northern right whale dolphins’ low profile means they are more elusive! As a result, people may miss them entirely. Nevertheless, both species often appear quite playful around vessels and tourists! 

With their interactive behavior and strange looks, this species is a consistent favorite among whale watch operators in the Monterey Bay region. Admittedly though, whale watchers may be more confused than excited to see Northern right whale dolphins, but that makes sense! Interestingly, further offshore, this species usually occurs in single-species pods.

Northern right whale dolphin
The infographic recap of this post — Credit: Anaïs Remili / Whale Scientists

Thank you for reading this post! Let us know what you think of these dolphins in the comments. If you’d like to find out about other dolphins, check out one of our posts on Pacific white-sided dolphins:

New research suggests dolphin infanticide in Japan

Further Reading & Sources:

  • Barlow, Jay, and Karin A Forney. “Abundance and Population Density of Cetaceans in the California Current Ecosystem.” Fishery bulletin (Washington, D.C.) 105, no. 4 (2007): 509–509.
  • Chang, Elaine. “Driftnet Fishing in the North Pacific: Environmental and Foreign Policy Dimensions.” The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 16, no. 2 (1992): 139–62. http://www.jstor.org/stable/45290194.
  • Mangel, Marc. “Effects of High-Seas Driftnet Fisheries on the Northern Right Whale Dolphin Lissodelphis Borealis.” Ecological applications 3, no. 2 (1993): 221–229.
  • Rankin, Shannon, Julie Oswald, Jay Barlow, and Marc Lammers. “Patterned Burst-Pulse Vocalizations of the Northern Right Whale Dolphin, Lissodelphis Borealis.” The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 121, no. 2 (2007): 1213–1218.
  • Anecdotal data was collected as a part of Master’s research conducted by Andrew L. Smith with permission from the Institutional Review Board of California State University, Chico, California and State University, Long Beach with CITI wildlife researcher training clearance as well.

My name is Andrew Loyd Smith (He/Him), and I am pursuing my Master's in Anthropology at California State University, Long Beach.

I am a multispecies ethnographer based in California, focused on the co-creation of story aboard the whale watch between humans and cetaceans (especially dolphins!). I am working to show and share how the whale watch is not just a recreational activity, but in fact a meeting of intelligent minds.

My fieldwork is based on participant observation - I go whale watching for data collection! I am a certified wildlife researcher and human subjects researcher through CITI, and so often will include the data that I have worked with/collected over the course of my research in my posts. Happy to share!

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