The Naming of Things: Right Whale vs Right Whale Dolphin

When it comes to cetacean names few seem as appropriate as the Right Whale. The story goes that these whales were given their name because they were the “right” whale to hunt. They stuck close to coast lines and were slow, docile, and spent much of their time near the surface – making them easy to spot. Once killed they floated which gave whalers extra time to harvest their large amounts of baleen and oil. They were hunted to the very brink of extinction, so much so that despite over 50 years of protection their numbers have not recovered, especially in the North Atlantic where only about 400 remain.

Photo by Graham

With all of this evidence pointing to the appropriateness of their name it was surprising to find that there is no actual evidence that this is where it came from. In “Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America,” Eric Jay Dolin wrote,

“Despite this highly plausible rationale, nobody actually knows how the right whale got its name. The earliest references to the right whale offer no indication why it was called that, and some who have studied the issue point out that the word “right” in this context might just as likely be intended “to connote ‘true’ or ‘proper,’ meaning typical of the group.”

Whether the “right” whale story is right or wrong we may never know but we do know where the Genus name comes from. Genus Eubalaena, is derived from the Greek “eu,” which means “well or true,” and “balaena,” which means “whale.” So whatever way you look at it, Right Whale seems right.

And while we’re talking about Right Whales let’s take a moment to acknowledge the wrongness of the Right Whale dolphin. A dolphin that was named because, like the right whale, it doesn’t have a dorsal fin! It is a striking characteristic though as it’s also the source of their Genus name, Genus Lissodelphis, coming from the Greek “lisso,” which means “smooth,” and “delphis,” which means “dolphin.”

Southern Right Whales have a population of approximately 100,000 and are still protected in their breeding grounds. You can read all our stories about them here. There is no global population number of Right Whale Dolphins although there is estimated to be 14,000 Northern Right Whale Dolphins.   If you have a story about any cetacean we want to hear it! You can share your encounters here.

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