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Right-Whales  Genus Balcena.

Genus Balcena.

Right-Whales  Genus Balcena - Orca Copyright Stan Klos

The right-whales, of which the Greenland whale is the best known representative, are characterised by the absence of any fin on the back, and of any furrows in the skin of the throat; and likewise by the proportionately large size of the head, and the arched form of the sides of the mouth, which ascends in the middle far above the level of the eye. The flipper is relatively short, and contains five distinct digits; and the whole of the seven vertebrae of the neck are welded together into a solid mass. The baleen is long, narrow, very elastic, and black in color.

The Greenland whale (Balcena mystwetiis) is a northern species, Greenland Whale characterized by the enormous size or the head, which often exceeds
one-third the entire length of the animal, by the high arching of the mouth, and the great number and length of the baleen plates. The latter in the middle region attain a length of 10 or even 12 feet, and their total number may exceed 380 on each side of the jaw. In order to afford room for such enormous structures, the narrow upper jaw is greatly arched from before backwards, while the two branches of the lower jaw are widely separated behind, and curve much outwards in the middle of their course.

The manner in which the plates of baleen perform their function has been explained by Captain D. Gray. When the mouth of the animal is closed, the slender extremities of the baleen curve backwards in the direction of the throat, the longer ones in the middle of the jaw occupying the hollow formed by the shorter ones behind. When the jaws are opened for feeding, the baleen by its own elasticity springs downwards and forwards, and thus fills up the whole space between the two jaws, irrespective of their degree of separation. An effectual strainer is thus interposed between the sides of the cavity of the mouth and the external water, which prevents the food swallowed from escaping, while the water taken in at the same time has full means of escape upon the closure of the mouth. The tongue is of very large size, and fills up the cavity between the two series of baleen plates when the mouth is shut; and the stranded prey left upon its surface after the completion of the straining process is swallowed at leisure. The large lower lip, rising up at the sides al>ove the extremities of the baleen, prevents them from being borne outwards by the rush of water as the mouth is closing.

The general color of the Greenland whale is black, but there is frequently more or less white about the throat, flippers, and in front of the flukes, while some individuals are pied all over. A rough prominence at the extremity of the muzzle, known as the " bonnet," is frequently present. In some individuals, at least, the tail is more constricted in advance of the flukes than is the case in our figure, while the flukes themselves are wider.

Right-Whales  Genus Balcena tip boat- Copyright Stan Klos

The Greenland whale attains usually a length of about 50 feet, but specimens have been recorded exceeding 60 feet, and it is probable that when the species was more numerous its average size was greater. These whales usually yield about 130 barrels of oil, but specimens were formerly killed from which as much as from 200 to 280 barrels has been obtained. The product of baleen may vary from 1000 to over 3000 Ibs. The price of this commodity in 1881 was as much as £1100 per tonj but in ten years it had risen to upwards of £2800 for the best quality, the average price being then about £2520 per ton.

Distribution, head whale of Bering Strait and the Okhotsk Sea as not specifically distinct, the range of the Greenland whale will be circumpolar. In the North Atlantic the southern limits of this species may be approximately indicated by a line drawn from the coast of Lapland, in latitude 70°, to the southern point of Iceland, and thence to the coast of Labrador, in latitude 55°. In Behring Sea it is but seldom seen south of latitude 55°, while in the Sea of Okhotsk it ranges about 1° further south. With regard to the northern limits of this whale, there is some degree of uncertainty. Captain Feilden is, however, of opinion that no whale could inhabit the frozen sea lying to the north of Robeson Channel, above Baffin Bay, in latitude 82° N., and that none would be found in the neighbourhood of the pole. This species undertakes annual migrations of considerable extent, always travelling northwards in summer as the ice breaks up. Captain Scammon states that " everything tends to prove that Balfena mysticetus is truly an ' ice-whale,' for among the scattered floes, or about the borders of the ice-fields or barriers is its home and feeding-ground. It is true that these animals are pursued in the open water during the summer months, but in no instance have we learned of their being captured south of where winter ice-fields are occasionally met with."

The huge size of the mouth and the enormous development of the baleen in this species is in correlation with the nature of the food, which is composed mainly of small shrimp-like crustaceans and swimming molluscs belonging to the group known as pteropods; a vast number of such minute creatures being necessary to afford sustenance to an animal of the dimensions of the Greenland whale. When feeding, these whales swim near the surface of the water, with the nostrils and a portion of the middle of the back showing above. Captain Scammon, writing about twenty years ago, says " they are often met with singly in their wanderings; at other times in pairs or triplets, and scattered over the surface of the water as far as the eye can discern from the masthead. Toward the end of the season they are seen in large numbers, crowded together. These herds are called ' gams,' and they are regarded by experienced whalemen as an indication that the whales will soon leave the ground. Their manner of respiration is to blow seven to nine times at a ' rising,' then ' turning flukes' (elevating them six to eight feet out of the water), they go down and remain twelve or fifteen minutes." Captain Gray states, however, that he has known a whale when harpooned stay under water for fifty minutes.

There is still some degree of uncertainty as to the breeding-habits of the Greenland whale. Dr. R Brown states that the pairing-season is from June to August, and that the young are bom in the following March, April, and May. Some other writers have, however, considered that the period of gestation is thirteen or fourteen months. The single offspring is believed to be suckled for about a year, during which time the baleen is gradually developed. The affection of the female parent for her young is most intense, and if she be captured there is little difficulty in securing her offspring.

The Greenland whale is a peaceful and timid animal, and appears never to attack the boats of its pursuers. The accidents which occur in hunting this species are mainly due either to its descending suddenly to great depths when first wounded, whereby the boat may be swamped or dragged under water, or by a too close approach to the animal when in its last terrible death-struggle, or " flurry," as it is called by the whalers. The ordinary speed of a Greenland whale, whether swimming at or below the surface, is estimated by Captain Gray at about four miles an hour, while when the animal is frightened or wounded its rate of progress will be accelerated to about eight miles.

The Greenland whale has for more than a century been systematically hunted by British whalers, whose headquarters are the ports of Peterhead and Dundee. From information given by Capt. Gray to Mr. T. Southwell, it appears that between the years 1788 and 1879 no less than four thousand one hundred and ninety-five whales were killed by the Peterhead vessels; while between 1790 and 1879 four thousand two hundred and twenty were accounted for by those sailing from Dundee. When we add to these the numbers killed by the whalers of other nations, it is not surprising to learn that the Greenland whale has now become a comparatively scarce animal. In the year 1891 only seventeen whales were captured by the Scotch whalers, and these were of comparatively small size, yielding whalebone of less than six feet in length. It has, indeed, been supposed that the species is either well-nigh exterminated, or has been driven northward beyond its ancient haunts. Neither of these suppositions appear, however, to be true, for it is now ascertained that the whales have not altered their original lines of migration, while so late as 1891 considerable numbers were seen in the Greenland seas. Writing on this subject, Mr. Southwell expresses his belief that the want of success experienced of late years by the whalers is " mainly owing to the introduction of steam, which enables the modern ships to follow the whales in localities where formerly they would have been safe from molestation. The rattle of the screw also, which can be heard by the whales for long distances, is now to them a well-known sound; above all, the eagerness with which they are followed up—all the vessels consorting together—has at length rendered them so wild as to be practically unapproachable. Even now, however, it appears quite possible that a vessel approaching their haunts alone, and in the quiet manner which prevailed before the introduction of steam, might be rewarded by the success of old. Certainly the fishery appears to be in a hopeless condition at present (1892); but it is possible that a few years' rest might restore the confidence of the whales, and that, if then pursued with due caution by a limited number of vessels, paying cargoes might again be obtained."

The method of capturing whales has been so frequently described, that it will be unnecessary to do more than briefly allude to it here. In former days the actual pursuit of the whale was always made in open boats, and the harpoon, with the line attached, thrown by hand; the animal being subsequently despatched by long sharp weapons known as lances. Later on, a harpoon-gun was substituted for the thrower; while at the present day the ships themselves are in some cases used in the attack, and the employment of open boats dispensed with. The vessels thus employed are mounted with a massive and elaborately constructed gun fixed in the boat upon a swivel support. The gunner takes his stand upon a platform, which is furnished with wings overlapping the small angle of the bows, and thus allowing him plenty of room to move freely. The projectile is a harpoon, armed with movable flukes, and containing an explosive in the head. When fired, the flukes lie flat on the sides of the harpoon, but on entering the flesh of the whale they open out so as to form a grapnel in its body; while the act of expansion also fires the explosive, by which the animal, if hit anywhere near a vital part, is generally killed outright.

Although the whale of the North Atlantic has been separated as a distinct species from the one inhabiting the southern part of  that ocean, while those of the North and South Pacific have likewise received distinct names, it is, on the whole, probable that all these indicate only local races of a single widespread species, which may be known as the southern right-whale (B. australis). This species differs from the last by its relatively smaller head, in which the contour of the lower lip is much more highly arched, and the baleen considerably shorter; while the number of ribs is fifteen in place of twelve. It is also of smaller size and yields less blubber. In its movements this whale is said to be quicker, more active, and more violent than the other, and is thus more difficult and dangerous to kill. In the North Atlantic it was still not unfrequent in the latter part of the eighteenth century, and ranged as far north as Iceland and Norway; but it is now all but exterminated in these regions. Several instances of whales, probably belonging to this species, having been seen or captured off the British Coasts previous to the commencement of the present century are on record; and it is highly probable that whales seen off Peterhead in 1806 and 1872 were likewise of the same kind. An example was captured in the harbour of San Sebastian in 1854, a second in the Gulf of Taranto in 1877, and a third on the Spanish Coast in the following year. The practical extermination of this species in European waters, appears to be due to the Basque fishermen of the Biscayan ports, by whom it was persistently hunted from the tenth to the sixteenth century. It was known to them as the sletbag, and had become exceedingly scarce on the discovery of Spitzbergen in 1596, when the Basque whalers turned their attention to the far more valuable Greenland species.

On the western side of the Atlantic, where it is known as the black whale, examples are occasionally met with. In the North Pacific it occurs in Japanese waters; and it likewise frequents the Australian and New Zealand seas, as well as the regions around the Cape of Good Hope. The southern limits of the southern right-whale are not yet definitely known, but the species certainly does not penetrate the icebound Antarctic Ocean.

Fossil Right Several species of right-whales have left their remains in the  Whales. Pliocene deposits of Belgium and the east coast of England. One of  these extinct forms appears to have been allied to the Greenland, and a second to the southern whales.  -- The Royal Natural History: Mammals, birds By Richard Lydekker - 1895 Edited by Stanley L. Klos 1999

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