Southern Right Whales

DESCRIPTION

The Southern Right Whale,”Eubalaena australis” is a large black stocky whale that has a number of features making identification relatively easy. They reach a maximum length of 17m and weight of 80 – 90 tonnes. It is the only large whale that lacks a dorsal fin. It has short blunt paddle-shaped flippers and the broad head carries a number of white callosities (raised rough patches of skin) that form individual identifiable pattern. This latter feature enables researchers to gather vital life history information on this species. This distinctive appearance combined with its slow moving behaviour make it difficult to confuse with any other species. The common name refers to the fact that it was the favoured target of the early whalers, the ‘right ‘ whale to hunt.

DISTRIBUTION, HABITAT AND STATUS

The Southern Right Whale inhabits the southern and sub-antarctic oceans except during the winter breeding season. During this breeding season the whales migrate to warmer temperate waters around the southern parts of the African, South American and Australian land masses.

Like the Humpback, commercial whaling decimated Southern Right Whale numbers. Its habit of lingering in bays and sheltered coastal areas made it an easy target so much so that it had virtually disappeared by the beginning of the 20th century. Fortunately, with strong protection its numbers are gradually increasing and the species is returning to most of its former range.

FOOD AND FEEDING

Like all the baleen whales, Southern Rights are essentially filter feeders, using their finely meshed long narrow plates to catch their prey, usually copepods or krill. They do not undertake the spectacular feeding displays of the Humpback, but use a steady open mouthed movement through prey swarms skimming out the food.

BREEDING

Calving is thought to occur only every three to five years. A single young is born after a gestation period of 12 months and within a year, the calf is weaned and independent.

SOUTHERN RIGHT WHALES: Some facts about the whales that visit Walker Bay annually

  1. Why do Southern Rights calve here in Walker Bay? As is the case for the Southern Cape Coast, the Walker Bay water is warm enough to sustain the new-born whale calves.
  2. Although research is not certain about the longevity of Southern Rights the estimation is that they can live to be 100 years old.
  3. n general, a new-born whale calf is a quarter of its mother’s length and 3 to 4% of her weight.
  4. During their annual migration whales feed in higher latitudes subantarctic and breed in lower latitudes such as Walker Bay.
  5. They are capital breeders like penguins – feeding one time of year, breed another time of year.
  6. Peter Best initiated the Southern Right Whale (SRW) monitoring in South Africa in 1969, while working at the Department of Fisheries. He found the Whale Unit in 1985 when he started working at the University of Pretoria. The database of SRW monitoring accompanied him. This precious database is older than Whale Unit and one of the oldest/longest whale datasets in the world.
  7. South African aerial Southern Right Whale surveys are done once a year flying in a westerly direction mimicking the whales’ route. This survey has an id catalogue of 2322 whales.
  8. Breeding intervals: Used to be every 3 years now every 4 to 5 years
  9. Growth curve for the Southern Right Whale population is set at 6,3% per year.
  10. Southern Right Whales visits the Cape South Coast from June till end November mostly.
  11. Question: If the migration is not complete where do the whales go? We simply don’t know!
  12. The plume of mist whales released when they breathe is not seawater, it is simply hot breath that condenses when exhaled into colder environment.
  13. Tail slapping could be amongst other things a sign of aggression when done by female whales and a sign of showing off if done by males.
  14. What do whales eat? Krill – small crustaceans.
  15. Whales are considered the “ecosystem engineers” of the ocean because they help to keep life at sea healthy by redistributing nutrients across the oceans.
  16. Southern right whales are mostly black in colour and were referred to as “black whales” by open boat whalers. Most have a white blaze on their bellies, which can vary in size from a small spot to a large irregularly shaped marking that may extend up the side of the animal and sometimes even up onto the back.
  17. There is also a “brindle” pigmentation pattern. Brindle calves are born almost completely white, with a speckled black collar around their necks and a variable amount of black spotting across their backs. 94% of all brindle whales are male.
  18. Want to adopt a whale? Go to www.adoptawhale.co.za

Written by Frieda Lloyd 7 June 2021, Cape Whale Coast Tourism, flloyd@overstrand.gov.za