With sleek, gray bodies, broad flukes and a hooked dorsal fin, the Rice's whale is the only baleen whale that makes the Gulf of Mexico its full-time home. Current data suggest that this whale’s core habitat is the De Soto Canyon, an underwater canyon located about 60 miles offshore from Pensacola, Florida and that this whale is unique to the United States.

In January 2021, scientists determined the Rice's whale to be its own, distinct species, contrary to previous classifications as a population of Bryde’s whales. There are fewer than 100 Rice's whales remaining, and a “best estimate” population of 50 animals, so swift and decisive action is urgently needed to save this species from extinction.

Defenders' Impact

Defenders of Wildlife is working to protect this critically endangered whale, through outreach and policy advocacy. Defenders and partner organizations are petitioning the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to set vessel speed limits around the Rice's whale’s core habitat, which will address a key threat. Defenders opposes offshore drilling and exploration in the Gulf, which is pertinent, as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill killed an estimated 22% of the species. Additionally, Defenders advocates against marine plastic pollution, another known danger to the Rice's whale.

Threats

Rice's whale is threatened by watercraft strikes, oil spills, plastic pollution, noise pollution, seismic surveys, oil exploration and development, fishing gear entanglement, and habitat degradation.  

Protection Status
Endangered Species Act
IUCN Red List
CITES
 Endangered
 Critically Endangered
 Appendix II
What You Can Do

Adopt the “reduce, reuse, recycle” principle to help keep plastic debris out of whales’ bodies. First, avoid plastic products, especially single-use products like plastic bags, whenever feasible. What you cannot avoid, reuse. Finally, recycle according to the rules in your area. Obey posted signs, boat speed limits and viewing guidelines when encountering cetaceans.

Facts
Latin Name
Balaenoptera ricei (proposed)
Size
Up to 41 feet long
Lifespan
Unknown
Range/Habitat

This whale’s core habitat is the northeastern Gulf of Mexico, mostly centered around the De Soto Canyon offshore from Pensacola, Florida, in waters that range from 500 – 1,345 feet deep. Their presence has been detected as far west as the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary offshore from Texas.

Population

There are fewer than 100 Gulf of Mexico whales remaining, and a “best estimate” population of 50 animals.

Behavior

Gulf of Mexico whales are known to occasionally approach ships out of “curiosity,” like some other baleen whale species. They are typically observed alone or in pairs. They communicate by producing low-frequency calls.  

Reproduction

Unknown. Speculations about the species’ reproductive behavior are based on Bryde’s whales worldwide, and this has been identified as a different species.

Diet

Scientists have not yet identified exactly what the Gulf of Mexico whale eats. Some suspected prey include lanternfish and hatchetfish. One study conducted by tagging a Gulf of Mexico whale found that while the whale remained within 50 feet of the surface for most of the night (88%), it dove repeatedly throughout the day to depths deeper than 650 feet, reaching the seafloor. In this study, the tagged whale was observed making “lunges” near the seafloor; behavior associated with feeding. This type of feeding is unusual for this type of whale.

News

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A gulf of mexico whale from the air
Washington, DC

Groups File Petition to Save the Gulf of Mexico Whale from Ship Strikes

Defenders of Wildlife and partners filed a petition today with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) to establish a year-round mandatory 10-knot speed limit and other vessel-related regulations within the core habitat of the Gulf of Mexico whale, south of the Florida panhandle.

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