Famous for their gargantuan size, southern right whales have dark gray or black skin; a broad back without a dorsal fin; small, rough patches (or callosities) on their heads and a playful nature.

The most rare of all large whales, right whales were given their common name by whalers, who identified them as the “right whales” to kill. At 50 feet long and weighing 70 tons, right whales were hunted for their plentiful oil and baleen, which could be made into buggy whips, corsets and parasol ribs. During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, right whale populations were so decimated that the whales came close to extinction.

Since 1949, however, all species of right whales (southern and the two species of northern right whales) have been given complete international protection. The whales live in temperate Atlantic or Pacific waters—often near the coasts. It’s estimated that there are now several thousand southern right whales; South Africa’s population alone is believed to have grown from 100 to 1,000 animals since 1940.

The story is different for northern right whales, however. It is thought only several hundred exist, and their numbers do not appear to have increased in the decades since their protection began.

In the short, National Geographic “Behind the Photo” video below, photographer Brian Skerry describes how he got this amazing shot of his assistant with one of these gentle giants in the Auckland Islands in sub-Antarctica. It’s a moment he’s thankful for; one that, he says, tops his long list of amazing animal encounters.

We hope you’ll join us in being thankful for all of our shared wild animal encounters this Thanksgiving.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,


Experience your own intimate moments with the giants of the sea. Join Natural Habitat’s extraordinary beluga whale trip in Churchill, Canada, or our Baja whale-watching adventure.