Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis)

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The Southern Right Whales got their name from being the ‘right’ whale to hunt as they are slow moving, swim close to the shore, float when dead,  and produce large quantities of oil, whalebone, meat and baleen.  They also seem to be very inquisitive of boats, which makes them easy to approach. They were hunted nearly to extinction by whalers, leaving only 100 individuals by 1935. Today there is a population of around 10,000, but are still listed by CITES as endangered.


Southern Right Whales in front of Port Elizabeth


Southern right whales reach an average size of 14 metres and 40 tons, though they can attain lengths of 17 metres. They are easily distinguished from other whale species as they are dark grey or black in colour, lack a dorsal fin, have a V-shaped blow and have callosities on their heads (which appear white due to the presence of whale lice). Southern right whales usually dive for 10-20 minutes but can stay underwater for up to 50 minutes. They can reach depths of up to 184 metres. Although usually seen in groups of 2-3, groups of up to 12 are not uncommon.


Southern Right Whales showing V-Shaped Blow


Like all baleen whales, Southern right whales have baleen plates instead of teeth. This allows them to filter out the water they engulf and keep the plankton as a food source. These whales feed on krill and copepods. They skim the surface of the water with mouth open wide, taking in both water and food. Southern right whales spend the summer months around Antarctica where this food is in high abundance. They migrate north (click here for map) to South Africa for the winter months, to breed and give birth. They don’t feed when at the breeding grounds due to a lack of concentrated zooplankton. Local prey sources are too fast moving for them. This means that during the summer months they have to build up their energy reserves in order to survive the 5000km round trip without eating.


Southern Right Whale Breaching


Southern right whales have a 12 month gestation period meaning they have to give birth in the same place that they mate. If they gave birth in the cold waters around Antarctica the calves would not survive, as they are not born with enough blubber. At birth, calves are 6 metres in length and weigh a ton. They are breastfed about 200 litres of milk per day and are weaned at around 12 months, though they may stay with the mother for longer. Southern right bulls are known to have the largest testes in the animal kingdom, each pair weighing one ton. This is caused by sperm competition, where the male who produces the most sperm will have the greatest chance of fathering the calf. After mating he plays no further part in the rearing of the calf.


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