Large numbers of Southern Right Whales migrate to the warmer waters of Australia from Antarctica each year from May to October. Around 3,500 whales take up residence in our southern waters, with about half of these congregating at the Head of the Bight. They head to these areas to mate, give birth and nurse their young. Seeing these 80-tonne animals move through the water is a truly spectacular sight.
A bit of background
Southern right whales are one of three right whale species. They were known as the ‘right’ whale to hunt because they are slow swimmers, easy to catch and buoyant when dead due to their extremely thick blubber. They were also very valuable due to the vast amounts of oil, meat, and baleen that they contained.
The hunting of Southern right whales was officially banned in 1935, but illegal Russian whaling continued for decades after. At least 150,000 right whales were killed, sending the species to the brink of extinction. Now there are only approximately 10,000 individuals left, with a growth rate of 7% per annum. These whales still have a long way to go!
What does a Southern Right Whale look like?
Adult females can grow up to 17 meters long, with males growing up to 15 meters. They are very bulky whales, with a huge girth, dramatically arched mouth and wide pectoral fins. Mostly black, southern right whales can easily be distinguished by their lack of dorsal fin and large head (up to a third of overall body length), that is covered in white callosities. These callosities appear white due to large colonies of whale lice. Most southern right whales sport a large callosity on their head, known as a ‘bonnet’. These callosities are a sort of fingerprint for these whales, allowing scientists to identify individual species.
They also have a very distinctive ‘v-shaped’ blow that can reach heights of 5 meters, easily spotted from a distance when whale watching.
A bit of science
All whales belong to the order ‘cetacea’, separated into two distinct sub-orders; ‘odontoceti’ (toothed whales) and ‘mysticeti’ (baleen whales). Southern right whales are part of the baleen whale suborder. Baleen whales are distinguishable by closely spaced baleen plates that hang down from both sides of the upper jaw. These baleen plates are used to filter and trap small fish and plankton through a feeding technique known as filter feeding.
What do Southern Right Whales eat?
Despite being some of the largest animals in the world, baleen whales feed on some of the smallest organisms on the planet. Southern right whales seek out large concentrations of plankton, copepods, krill, and tiny crustaceans. When baleen whales filter feed, they open their mouths and take in enormous quantities of water along with the plankton. They then close their mouths and use their tongues to push the water back out of their mouth, catching the prey on the baleen’s bristles. These animals will feed on 600-1600 kg of plankton per day.
Females reach sexual maturity and have their first calf around nine or ten years of age and then have a calf about every three years after that. Whales form very close social bonds and a calf will stay with its mother for their first year of life. In this time they learn important skills until they become fully independent. A calf will stay in warmer water for the winter as it grows and it’s blubber thickens, preparing for the Antarctic waters.
Viewing Southern Right Whales
Despite their bulky size, southern right whales are quite the acrobats! They can be seen breaching, sometimes multiple times in a row and ‘head-standing’. Head-standing involves tipping themselves vertically and waving their flukes in the air. They also love to body-roll, lobtail (slap their tails on the surface of the water) and slap their flippers on the water’s surface. Frequent spy-hoppers, they have been heard bellowing and moaning at breeding grounds.
Southern right whales are also known for ‘sailing’, holding their tail flukes out of the water for what scientists believe may be to catch the wind to sail through the water. All in all, they are quite the entertainers!
Best place to whale watch
The Head of the Bight is one of the best places in the world to view Southern Right Whales. In the Information Centre, you can find a range of educational tools and entrance to the boardwalk and viewing platform. Female whales will have their calves in these waters and generally stay within 15km off the coast.
These impressive animals can also be spotted along the Southern coast of the Fleurieu Peninsula, specifically at Victor Harbour. The South Australian Whale Centre can also be found in Victor Harbor, taking you through an interactive journey through whaling history. Their 3D theatre will make you feel like you’re swimming with whales without getting wet!
Wherever you are in the world, making your way to view these magnificent animals is well worth the money and travel time. It certainly makes winter worth it in South Australia!
All other images are from our staff member, Ben Yuan!