In 1980 a group of scientists taking a census of marine mammals in the Bay of Fundy was astonished at the sight of 25 right whales. It was, one scientist later recalled, "like finding a brontosaurus in the backyard." Until that time, scientists believed the North Atlantic right whale was extinct, or nearly so. The sightings electrified the research community, spurring a quarter century of exploration, which is documented in The Urban Whale, edited by New England Aquarium Vice President of Research Scott Kraus, Ph.D., and Aquarium Senior Scientist Rosalind Rolland, D.V.M.


About the Book


Click to enlarge images from the book.

A breaching right whale.
Lindsay Hall/New England Aquarium



Close encounters between ships

and right whales suggest that remarkably,

right whales do not percieve approaching large

vessels as a danger until too late.
Harriet Corbett/New England Aquarium


Surface active groups are among the most

spectacular and energetic behaviors observed

in right whales. Although usually associated with

courtship, observations of all male and all-female

groups suggest that there may be multiple

social functions beyond reproduction.
Yan Guilbault/New England Aquarium



The use of detection dogs is more than four times

as effective as opportunistic methods of collecting

right whale fecal samples for hormone, health, and

biotoxin analyses. Here Fargo and Dr. Rosalind

Rolland narrow in on a sample.
Brenna Kraus/New England Aquarium



The authors present our current knowledge about the biology and plight of right whales, including their reproduction, feeding, genetics and endocrinology, as well as fatal run-ins with ships and fishing gear. Employing individual identifications, acoustics and population models, Kraus, Rolland and their colleagues present a vivid history of this animal, once a commercially hunted commodity and today threatened by the challenges of traveling in urban waters. Hunted for nearly a millennium, right whales are now being killed by the ocean commerce that supports our modern way of life. This book offers hope for the eventual salvation of this great whale.


This book is a must for anyone interested in the plight of whales and their conservation. It describes the efforts of a group of biologists to understand why, nearly a century after whaling ceased, the right whale population off the eastern seaboard of America has not rebounded. Central to their research is a catalog of every individual right whale in the North Atlantic, tracking their 300 lives amid the dangers and detritus of our industrial culture. The authors present a sobering view of the threat our modern way of life poses to wildlife, but they balance this with their intense commitment to find a way to prevent the extinction of the right whale. Let us hope that they succeed.

          -- Peter L. Tyack, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution


Whales depend on sound for intraspecies communication, and according to one of the studies republished in this book "the chance of two animals hearing each other today has been reduced to 10 percent of what it was one hundred years ago." Add imprecise (but real) threats such as general habitat loss and degradation, and, of course, climate change, and you begin to understand why the North Atlantic right whale is under siege. Will we stand by and watch the last of the great whales vanish? Scott D. Kraus and Rosalind M. Rolland, who wrote the final chapter of The Urban Whale, are not optimistic, but they are not without hope.

          -- Richard Ellis (Times Literary Supplement)


The Urban Whale is the story of a population of 300 right whales living on the east coast of North America, facing a host of real and potential threats to their survival and procreation, many of them human-related. Seventeen chapters summarize the background and present the results of 25 years of research into this population, but it is the tales of the individual whales themselves--tragic Churchill, intrepid Shackleton, inspiring Calvin and the peripatetic Porter--that bring home the realities of the situation to the reader. This book is destined to become a classic amongst individual-based studies of mammal populations.

           -- Peter Best, Extraordinary Professor, University of Pretoria, South Africa


This book tells an extraordinary story about one of the most compelling endangered species on the planet and it does so with great lucidity and depth. It also carries a fascinating subtext: the Herculean work of dozens of scientist-detectives who are struggling to unravel the mysteries of these creatures in time to prevent their extinction.

           -- Malcolm L. Hunter, Jr., University of Maine


The book has been superbly edited, and to my mind each chapter is as clear, concise, informative, and downright pleasant to read as the next. While it is certainly a science treatise written by the world’s experts on the species, there is much intelligently summarized information, and very little in the way of primary figures and tables to bog us down. Instead, black and white photos are sprinkled throughout, and a color plate section occurs in the middle, to illustrate the whales themselves, their behavior, research techniques, and aspects of habitat such as temperature and chlorophyll. Each chapter begins with a personal vignette, in logbook fashion, of an experience with a particular whale, a thought about conservation management needs, or a similar non-scientific treatise. These notes lend a personal, almost romantic, air to the text. I recommend The Urban Whale for anyone interested in whales, problems of fishing and shipping, and marine vertebrate conservation. I also suggest it for students and educators who wish to discover firsthand how superb thought and editing can produce one of the finest books on a marine mammal I have read in quite some time.

          -- Bernd Würsig (Quarterly Review of Biology)


T]his book deserves to be studied with care by all marine biologists, but certainly read as well by everyone concerned with the cavalier relationship we have with the wildlife with which we share the planet.

           -- Arthur Westing (Brattleboro Informer)