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MAMMAL NAMES | The 'Right' Whale:

How the Name of Ireland's Right Whale Reveals a Terrible Wrong

Painting of a whaling ship from the 1860s called the Diana, by James. H. Wheldon (1830–1895). A number of the baleen whales in Ireland's seas have names derived from whaling

Our explorations of the names and titles of Ireland’s baleen whales over the last number of months have opened our eyes to just how fascinating these masters of the deep are and how lucky Ireland is to have waters populated with such wonders. Before we leave these sea-dwelling giants, then, it is important that we look at one last feature of their names which reveals something about them which is far more disturbing and upsetting – that they have been hunted mercilessly by our own species. A history of exploitation from whaling is most starkly etched in the name of the northern right whale, but a number of others have names which derive from them being targeted by human hunters too. So, our voyage to the seas this month will be harrowing, but it will also be illuminating, revealing to our eyes a terrible wrong.

The northern right whale owes its common name to an unfortunate combination of attributes that made it the first of the great baleen whales to be systematically hunted by humans. It dwells at the surface of the sea, is a slow swimmer, is curious about humans and their boats, and contains so much oil that it floats after dying. So, for early whalers, this cetacean was easy to kill and hard to lose, and yielded enormous quantities of oil (around 20 tonnes) and baleen (one tonne), so it was regarded as the ‘right’ whale to hunt. This description is also reflected in its scientific name, as it belongs to the genus Eubalaena, with eu meaning ‘right’, ‘true’, or ‘correct’ in Greek and balaena meaning ‘whale’ in Latin, as we saw previously.

The Basques were the first to establish a whaling industry based on the hunting of right whales, which began over a thousand years ago, and that they should have been the first Europeans to do so should not come as any surprise to anyone who has read Mark Kurlansky’s wonderful 1999 book The Basque History of the World, which chronicles their long and rich maritime history. This Basque whaling industry was centred on the Bay of Biscay, and this is referenced by the Irish name for the northern right whale, fíormhíol mór na Bioscáine, which means the ‘true/right whale of Biscay’.

Map of the Basque region, which is bordered by the Bay of Biscay

Beginning in the Bay of Biscay, then, the Basques turned yet another feature of the right whale against it to land these marine giants in industrial quantities, using a hunting method called ‘bay whaling’. Every three years, northern right whales would return to the same bays to give birth to their calves, and when they did the Basques would just pick them off. And when the whales no longer turned up in a certain bay, the whalers would just move on to the next bay and do the same thing all over again.

This was a brutally effective hunting technique over the centuries, and just how greatly the numbers of the northern right whale were depleted is illustrated by whale catches from Ireland in the early twentieth century. On the Mullet Peninsula in Co. Mayo on Ireland’s northwest coast, a whaling industry was established that operated from 1908 to 1915, and again from 1920 to 1922, but only 18 northern right whales were landed initially, and none after 1910.

By the early twentieth century, then, whalers’ familiarity with the northern right whale had allowed them to empty the seas of many of these great cetaceans. However, this familiarity also resulted in some of the more interesting names for this baleen whale’s most distinctive features.

For instance, the northern right whale is readily distinguishable from its similarly large member of the family Balaenidae, the bowhead whale, as well as the rest of the large baleen whales due to the presence of large patches of thickened skin called callosities in various locations on its head. The exact reason for the presence of these growths is not yet clear, but as they are slightly larger in males than females it is possible that they are used when males compete for mates, perhaps as weapons to graze an opponents’s skin.

In any case, these callosities have been given interesting names, the most colourful of which is the one for the largest, that is found on the snout, which old-time whalers referred to as the ‘bonnet’. Other patches too have interesting names, such as the ‘beard’ under the chin, or the ‘eyebrow’ over the eye. That such charming names should come from those who caused the decline of the northern right whale is truly poignant, but at least there is a silver lining in this dark cloud in that these callosities can now be used by those seeking to conserve this whale, as they allow individuals to be identified without the need to capture them or make contact in any way.

The northern right whale (bottom) is easily distinguishable from its relative the bowhead whale (top) due to the callosities on various parts of its head

But though we can now see that humans have long been familiar with the northern right whale, this has not prevented them from bestowing upon it at least one inaccurate name. We have already seen that the genus name of this cetacean is Eubalaena, but its full scientific name is Eubalaena glacialis. This species name, glacialis, which relates to ice, is not really warranted, as this whale is not truly an Arctic species as its relative the bowhead is, for example. There is something not quite right, then, about this name for the right whale.

Whatever about the species name, though, we have clearly seen at this stage that many of the names of the northern right whale relate to its long history of being hunted by humans. But as mentioned in the opening paragraph, it is not the only baleen whale in Irish waters with names connected to whaling.

We have previously seen, for example, that the mighty humpback’s genus name is Megaptera, but its full scientific name is Megaptera novaeangliae. This species name, novaeangliae, is a reference to the New England region on the eastern seaboard of the United States to recognise local whalers’ descriptions of this whale which was common in coastal waters, with nova and anglia simply meaning ‘new’ and ‘England’ in Latin.

Left: Illustration of a New England whaling boat from an 1874 book. Right: Map of New England. 1 = Maine, 2 = New Hampshire, 3 = Vermont, 4 = Massachusetts, 5 = Connecticut, 6 = Rhode Island

However, it is a whaler that once lived on the other side of the North Atlantic from which is derived one of the darkest names related to the whaling industry that is held by one of the baleen whales in Ireland’s seas – the northern minke whale. Hayden and Harrington explain the derivation of this name very succinctly in their 2000 book Exploring Irish Mammals :

‘The common name for this whale seems to be a corruption of the name of a Norwegian whaler, Meincke. He apparently had the profitable inability to distinguish between the large species which were permitted, and smaller ones, which were not, and regularly overestimated the size of whales, which might otherwise not have been captured. Thus individuals of this species, which is the smallest of the baleen whales, became known as Meincke’s whales.’

One of the Irish names for this whale also ultimately derives from Meincke. Although previously we saw that one Irish name for this whale is droimeiteach beag, meaning the ‘small fin whale’, its usual Irish name is míol mór mince, ‘the minke whale’.

So, three out of the seven species of baleen whale that have been spotted in Irish waters have names which derive directly from their history of exploitation by human hunters, and certainly when we think about practices such as bay whaling or the cynical misidentification of smaller whales to allow their capture it is clear these species have suffered a terrible wrong. But even those baleen species in Ireland's seas whose names do not reflect a history of hunting by humans have been pierced by the harpoon no less deeply, and the tale of their historical exploitation is one we might return to at a later date.

But though many of the great baleen whales that enrich the waters of modern Ireland with their presence have survived their darkest days when they were hunted almost to the point of obliteration, and their populations have begun to recover, their future on this planet is far from certain. The days of whaling in Ireland may be long over, but the activities of its people still place whales in great danger, as do those of humans worldwide. Fishing gear, noise, and rivers of plastic pollute the waves of the whales' watery home, placing an unnecessary and unwelcome burden on the survival and reproduction of these magnificent marine giants at a time when they are still only in the early stages of a recovery. The Irish, then, no longer hunt the whales in their seas but they do still imperil them, and much work has yet to be done to right a terrible wrong.

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