Watching Right Whales - Bay of Fundy
  • We are fortunate to have a large number of right whales in the Bay of Fundy most summers but these whales are highly endangered. 
  • Many mothers and calves use the Bay as a nursery area. 
  • Two Conservation Zones for right whales exists, one off southwestern Nova Scotia and one in the Bay of Fundy. 
  • It is always best to be cautious and conservative when watching right whales to avoid any negative impact to the whales, particularly when mothers and calves are in the area.  (Note: Along the eastern seaboard of the United States you must be 500 yards or further from right whales at all times.  If a right whale surfaces near your boat you must slowly move away from it as soon as possible.) 
  • It is also important to report sightings of right whales in the Bay of Fundy to Fundy Traffic, VHF Channel 14 or the Canadian Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16, including any entangled whales.   They monitor the location of right whales and warn shipping traffic into and out of the port of Saint John about the presence of right whales, particularly in the shipping lanes.  The information to report is the name of your vessel, location in latitude and longitude and the number of right whales present.  If the whales are over a larger area you can include an estimate of the area covered. Important information can also be retrieved from any dead right whales you may encounter. 
If you plan to go whale watching (whether with a commercial operator or on a private vessel) please refer to the general whale watch information and specifically:


You should also be familiar with the following information about mothers and calves.

The Bay of Fundy is a nursery area for North Atlantic right whales. Mothers and their calves are particularly vulnerable because the calf must rest frequently at the surface.

  • Use extreme caution when moving through an area that may have right whales.  Assume that calves are in the area. The vessel should never be in autopilot without a posted watch.  Right whales are not aware of your vessel and will not get out of your way! 
  • Post a bow watch, reduce speed, change course to avoid areas of right whales.
  • The Department of Fisheries and Oceans recommends a keeping a distance of at least 100m from mothers/calves with no more than one boat present with a mother and calf. 
  • Slow to 18.5 km/hr (10 knots) or less when a right whale is spotted 3 km (2 miles) away and to 13 km/hr (7 knots) or less when within 1.5 km (1 mile).  Travel through areas known to have right whales should be done at slow speed when visibility is reduced (i.e. fog or during the night). 
  • Maintain these speeds at the same ranges when departing the right whale area with a dedicated bow watch for at least five miles from the last right whale sighting. 
  • If you stop to watch right whales extreme caution is still required. Remember you are the visitor - whale watching is a privilege. Watching marine wildlife responsibly will yield great rewards. 
How can you tell a mother/calf pair?
Calves are much smaller than their mothers but by the time they are in the Bay of Fundy the calves may be 6-9 m (20-30 feet) long.  When with their mothers, calves are less than a body length away.

How can you tell a calf from an adult?
When seen with adults the size difference is obvious however when seen alone they can be mistaken for older right whales.  Calves' heads are concave rather than convex.  Baleen of calves is short so the head tends to be flat or slightly indented with both the bonnet callosity (at the end of the rostrum or tip of the head) and the coaming callosity (before the blowholes) appearing prominently or "pug" shaped.  Their flukes are smaller than adult flukes and calves may or may not completely lift their flukes as they dive.  Orange-coloured cyamids or "whale lice" on their heads are more common.  They are often active at the surface but their activities may differ from similar activities performed by adults.

Common activities and how calves perform them:

1. flipper slapping/waving - slapping the water surface or raising flipper into air. Calves may hit their sides with their flippers as often as the water. Female calves will sometimes roll upside down with flippers up and drift along.

2. surfacing - breaking the surface to breath. Calves may come up normally or backwards, flukes first

3. fluking or diving - lifting the tail when diving deeply.  The calves' flukes, if lifted, may be cockeyed or many times may not be lifted.

4. logging - lying at the surface, motionless except to breath. Calves often nap for long periods when their mothers are off feeding. This is more prevalent on calm days.  They are difficult to see with little of the head and back showing.

5. breaching - propelling most or all of the body above the water surface. Calves often breach - some more than others.  It is recommended to have the motor in neutral and if necessary, move away from the calf since calves may breach toward a vessel. 

6. tail lobbing - slapping the surface of the water with the tail flukes. This vigourous activity is another favourite of calves. As with breaching, calves who are tail lobbing, give a wide berth.

7. avoiding - taking actions to move away from vessels. Calves may also submerge when a boat approaches, and remain just under the surface, re-emerging when the boat begins to move.  This may happen over and over. It is difficult to safely leave the area especially when more than one calf is in the area.

8. curiosity - approaching objects/vessels closely.  Calves may investigate objects such as seaweed. Calves may also approach boats and show curiosity including swimming under vessels whether the vessels are moving slowly or just drifting.  This is not a behaviour to encourage because of the propensity of right whales to be struck by vessels. 

9. gregariousness - coming together in groups, often accompanied by social activity. Calves may associate with other calves at times in a "nursery school".  When near nursery schools it must be remembered that females may approach from several directions for their calves.  The calves may submerge when vessels approach or be oblivious to vessel activity when engaged in play. 

Why are mothers and calves sometimes separated?
The mother feeds at depth while the calf remains at the surface, sometimes for several hours. 

How do right whale mothers and calves communicate when separated?
Underwater and above water vocalizations, flipper slapping, breaching or tail lobbing, which also create underwater noise. 

What happens when they reunite? 
The calf will swim quickly toward the mother at the surface.  When together the two will touch each other with their flippers and flukes, and engage in nursing sessions.  The mother tolerates boisterous behaviours by the calf including breaching onto her back and covering her blowholes with its flukes.

How can you tell calves are nursing?
Calves are nursing when the mother is motionless at the surface and the calf disappears beneath her. 

Where should you be? 
It is always prudent not to position a boat between a mother and a calf.  This means that the mother's activities must be monitored as well as the calf's.  Mothers are not usually aggressive but each female is different. 

Where will you find mothers and calves?
With other right whales but mothers and calves may travel more widely and show up in areas not considered to be "normal".   The reasons may include avoiding predators or male right whales, familiarizing their calves with the area, or looking for food. 

How do you know a whale is avoiding you or your behaviour is stressful to the whales? 

  • rapid changes in course and speed
  • prolonged dives, course changes, underwater exhalation
  • constantly turning from the vessel
  • changing behaviour and beginning to travel away from your vessel
  • tail lashes, trumpeting (louder exhalations)
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Right Whale Conservation
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