Southern right whale

Eubalaena australis
Other names: 
  • n/a
Maximum length: 
  • Male: 15m
  • Female: 17m
  • Calf: 4m
Maximum weight: 
  • Male: 90,000kg
  • Female: 90,000kg
  • Calf: Unknown
Diet: 
  • Krill
Estimated population: 
7,500
IUCN Listing: 
LC (Chile-Peru subpopulation listed as CR)
CITES Appendix: 
I
CMS Appendix: 
I
Classification: 

Right whales are so named because whalers considered them the 'right whale' to catch, being easy to approach, swimming slowly, living close to shore and floating when dead to make access to their valuable oil, meat and whalebone simpler. As a result between 1805 and 1844 alone, about 45,000 right whales were killed and they came very close to extinction. Although protected since 1937, only the southern right whale is showing signs of recovery.

Appearance: 

Southern right whales have many outstanding characteristics - the most notable perhaps being that they have the largest testes in the animal kingdom - with each pair weighing a tonne. They also have a large head, which is about a quarter of their body length with a strongly arched mouth. Inside this mouth are long, narrow baleen plates on either side of the upper jaw. There are some 220-270 plates. Each one is up to 3m long, has fringed bristles and is dark grey or brown. The baleen can appear yellow under water and is lighter in young animals. Southern right whales have huge growths called 'callosities' on their heads and rostrum (upper jaw). Whale lice - a type of crustacean - live on the callosities, which makes them appear pale. Southern right whales have two blowholes. Their blow is wide, V-shaped and up to 5m high. Southern right whales have a rotund body and broad backs with no dorsal fin and large, broad flippers. The skin is dark brown with white patches on the bellies. The tail flukes are raised when diving. They have smooth, wide trailing edges and a deep notch in the middle. Southern right whales have more callosities on their lower 'lip', and less on their head, than northern right whales and like northern right whales, individuals are identified by the unique patterns these growths make. They are also slightly smaller than the 2 species of northern right whales. Otherwise, the three species are almost identical.

Behaviour: 

Although slow swimmers southern right whales are highly acrobatic. They may 'head-stand' by tipping themselves upside-down vertically and waving their flukes in the air. They also wave their flippers and slap them on the surface of the water and breach - up to 10 times in a row. 'Sailing' is another commonly observed activity - individuals will use the flukes to sail in the wind. They also frequently lobtail and spyhop, and have been heard bellowing and moaning when visiting breeding grounds. Southern right whales live in groups of up to 12 individuals, but are more commonly found in groups of two or three, unless at feeding grounds.

Distribution: 

Southern right whales are found between 18ºS to 55ºS, migrating between feeding grounds in the colder Antarctic waters where they spend the austral summers and warmer breeding grounds closer to the equator in austral winter months. Important calving and mating grounds are close to shore off the coasts of Australia, South Africa, South America and some oceanic islands. Multiple stocks of southern right whales are thought to exist and this species of right whale has shown considerable recovery since the days of commercial whaling however there are still populations that don't appear to be recovering like the southern right whales off the coast of Chile. Threats to southern right whales include ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, and climate change. An emerging threat that has been increasing rapidly in the Peninsula Valdes calving ground and may eventually drive the whales elsewhere is parasitism by kelp gulls, which gouge skin and blubber from the whales' backs. The IUCN lists the southern right whale in the category of 'Least Concern' (2008).

Distribution map: