Southern right whales were absolutely decimated on a global scale during the whaling era. At a minimum, there were as little as 300 southern right whales remaining globally, from a population that once reached over 150,000. Southern right whales were targeted as early as the 11thcentury and right up until 1978 when the Albany whaling station was shut down when it became illegal to hunt whales in Australian waters.
Southern right whales were granted their name as they were considered the “right” whales to hunt. Their extremely inquisitive nature meant they swam up to whaling vessels, they’re one of the only whale species that are buoyant once dead, making them easy to tow and the quality and quantity of their oil were much greater than many others. At 20m in length and 90 tonnes, southern rights whales are double the weight of humpbacks and only 2m longer!!! Half the work and double the money in whalers’ eyes. This rape and pillage mentality combined with the slow reproductive rates of southern rights at only one calf every 3-4 years, has resulted in these incredible animals still, to this date, being classed as endangered under the IUCN.
Southern right whales are skim feeding baleen whales which use their baleen plates, which are made of Keratin (like our hair and nails) to filter out the water that they engulf in order to keep the krill in their mouths. Due to their size, southern right whales have to consume huge quantities of krill for the 4-6 months that they feed down in Antarctic waters, up to 3 tonnes a DAY! For the austral winter the southern right whales migrate north into Australian waters to breed, calve and nurse their young. These gentle giants often reside in calm, coastal waters, close to shore (up to a stone throw from the shore). The shallow waters provide perfect conditions to raise their newborns (which weigh up to one tonne at birth!).
Southern right whales fast for the majority of their northern migration and lose over 20-30% of their body weight each season! Females are larger than males as they use large amounts of their blubber to produce the milk to feed their calves, which drink up to 300L of milk each day!!! At both of our whale watching sites (May-Aug) Augusta and (Sep-Nov) Dunsborough we encounter southern right whales that reside in the protected waters along the pristine coastline for weeks/months at a time and we get to know the newborn calves very well! From 3m at birth the calves are often 7-8m long by the time they leave the area on their journey south back to Antarctic waters for the first time.
Southern right whales are quite unique when it comes to identifying them! The species has two distinct features, the lack of a dorsal fin (as they’re such slow swimmers they don’t need one) and their callosities (which are keratinised growths on their face). These features are specific to southern right whales making it easier to distinguish them from humpbacks and blue whales, which we also encounter at both of our whale watching sites down here in the south-west! Southern right whales are one of the slowest moving whales with top speeds of ~15km/hr which is only half the speed of humpbacks! The species are often confused as rocks in the water as their main behaviour is known as “logging”, simply floating at the surface to conserve energy! This great camouflage is often ruined once the calf is born, regularly seen flopping around the mother constantly annoying her with their rolls and pec-slaps! TOO CUTE!
Once the calf is old enough the mother guides them out into the deeper water to build up their muscle mass, preparing them for their long journey south. We are also sometimes lucky enough to witness the mothers teaching their calves how to BREACH! With just two pumps of their tail a 90 tonne southern right can launch their entire body mass out of the water, even in as little as 5m of water!!! The sight is often followed by her tiny counterpart and their miniature splash in response!!
It’s fun fact time! Although southern right whales aren’t the largest great whale species, and are only ½ the weight of the blue whale, they hold a very large record! Southern rights, have by far, the largest sexual appendage of ANY animal! At 500kgs each, they have the world’s biggest testicles!!!! WOW!! Now with that said, everything else will seem very small so we will leave you with that.