This whale was already known by ancient people. It was also included in Historia Naturalis of Pliny the Elder; he described it as balaena. Its scientific description was given by the German naturalist O. Müller in 1776. The northern right whale is closely related to the southern right whale; some scientists consider them a single species.
Early whalers called this animal right whale, because it was the right whale for killing, as it swam enough slowly to be chased by rowboats, and, given its buoyance, remained floating on the surface after being killed. The genus name Eubalaena also means "right whale"; the species name glacialis refers to the fact that this whale mainly lives in cold Arctic waters.
The body of the northern right whale is smooth and fat. It has a very large head, with highly arched upper jaw. There is no fin and no throat grooves. The skin is black, with an irregularly shaped white patch on the belly and several small white spots on the chin. There are strange callosities on the head; these are colonized by barnacles and whale lice. Every individual whale can be identified after the shape of the callosities.
Being a baleen whale, the northern right whale has no teeth, but about 260 olive-grey baleen plates hanging from each side of the upper jaw. The baleen plates can be 2.4 metres long.
Northern right whales live in family groups. They mate in early spring; during courtship, they strike each other with their flippers and do spectacular breaches. Male right whales have the largest testes in the animal world; the weight of the two testes can reach 1000 kg. Calves are born after a gestation period of 9—10 months, in winter, in shallow coastal areas. Mothers suckle their calves for a year and care for them for other two or three years. Family cohesion is very strong; mothers do not abandon their wounded calves.
Right whale sounds include belches, moans and pulsed sounds.
Justified as the right whales to kill, these animals were intensely hunted for several centuries. Now, this is the most endangered species of the great whales: only about 300 animals have remained; most of them live along the Atlantic coasts of North America. These animals are migratory: they spend the winter around Florida and Georgia, and by summer they migrate to the waters of Maine and Nova Scotia.