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Last updated on April 16, 2014 at 17:34 EDT

Southern Right Whale, Eubalaena australis

The southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) is a species of baleen whale that can be found in different regions in the summer and winter seasons. During the summer, it can be found in the Southern Ocean, possibly near Antarctica. During the winter, populations disperse into many warmer areas to breed, including waters near Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, South Africa, Peru, Namibia, Brazil, Australia, and Madagascar, among other areas.

Right whales were first classified by Carolus Linnaeus in 1758 in the genus Balaena. At this time, all right whales were thought to be one species, but between the 18th and 19th centuries, there was much debate about the proper classification of all members of the Balaenidae family. The bow whale and the three species of right whale have been classified as one to four species throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, in one or two distinct genera.

In 1822, the southern right whale was classified by Desmoulins as Balaena australis. Later, it was found that all right whales and the bow whale were distinct enough to become separate species, which caused John Edward Gray to place the right whales in the genus Eubalaena in 1864. Although the right whale species were now separated from the bow whale, it was not until later that southern right whales were noted as being distinct from northern right whales. However, some experts were still asserting that the right whales should be classified as one species known as Balaena glacialis as recently as 1998.

In 2002, genetic data gathered by Rosenbaum and others showed that this could be incorrect. Data from the southern and northern populations of right whales were collected, and it was found that the two populations had not bred for at least three million years. It was also found that the Antarctic and northern Pacific populations could be distinct. The Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) recognized Rosenbaum’s findings as true in 2002 and noted that the name Eubalaena should be kept for both the northern and southern right whale species.

Female southern right whales can reach an average body length of up to 49 feet with a weight of around 50 short tons. Male’s testicles are thought to be the largest of any mammal species, reaching a weight of about 1,100 pounds. Experts assert that this shows a need for sperm competition during the breeding season. This species develops thick layers of blubber, which keeps them warm in cold areas, but does not allow for migration to extremely warm areas, like tropical habitats. It displays a behavior known as sailing, where it will use its raised flukes to catch wind. This behavior is thought to be a form of play for the whales and can often be seen in South African and Argentinian populations.

The total population numbers of the southern right whale are thought to be around ten thousand individuals. By studying populations found in South African, South American, and Australian waters, it has been found that these populations do not interbreed often. This is due to a mother’s choice to remain loyal to past breeding areas, and young females are able to choose this loyalty when they are able to breed.

Many populations of the southern right whale differ depending upon their location. These include populations in New Zealand, South Africa, and Brazil and Argentina. The population in New Zealand was once thought to be small, containing only eleven breeding females, but research conducted by the Department of Conservation and reports from locals has helped experts to better understand the whales located in that area. It has been found that large numbers of this species gather near New Zealand and can even be found near South Island. It has also been found that certain areas, including Te Waewae Bay and Preservation Inlet are extremely important for breeding whales.

In South African waters, specifically in Hermanus, whale watching has become extremely popular. Every year about 100 whales gather to breed in this area during the months of June to October. This also occurs in Plettenberg Bay during June to December and False Bay from July to October. Licensed boaters can take onlookers into the oceans to watch the whales breed, calve, and play in these areas.
More than 300 whales gather in Brazilian waters, and these can be seen in the waters of the State of Santa Catarina, and off the coasts of Uruguay and Argentina. The International Whaling Commission’s Scientific Committee gathered in 2012 to discuss phenomenon of beached whales that occurs at Península Valdés in Argentina. There were 482 recorded deaths caused by beaching between the years 2003 and 2011. In 2012, at least 55 whales perished due to beaching and in 2011, this number increased to 61 whales. It was found that the majority of beached whales were calves.

Beaching is not the only threat to cause a high mortality rate for young whales. Experts have found that since 1996, kelp gulls have taken to attacking and eating live right whale calves. This behavior occurs often in Argentinian waters, specifically in Patagonia. The gulls will target mother-calf pairs and tear holes into the calves that can be up to 1.6 feet in diameter. Because of these attacks, mothers can spend a third of their time above water trying to escape the gull attacks, causing the calves to have less time to nurse. This makes the calves thin and weak. Some experts assert that many years ago, a waste accident that occurred may have caused this behavior in the gulls. Because of the decrease of the gull’s normal food source caused by the waste accident, and the increase of kelp gull populations, the birds were forced to find another source of food. The IWC Scientific Committee has urged Brazil to watch for similar behaviors in gulls located in their waters and suggests taking action if this problem occurs.

Whale watching has become popular in two main areas of the southern right whale’s habitat. In Hermanus, South Africa, these whales gather during the months of June to October. The whales swim so close to the shore that hotels have been placed along the shoreline to take advantage of the popular activity. Two boats are licensed in this area to carry onlookers into the ocean, and there is even a “town crier” that walks through the town announcing the arrival of the whales and where they can be seen. The town of Imbituba in Santa Catarina, Brazil has been recognized as the National Right Whale Capital and holds a celebration called Right Whale Week every year. These occur in September, when mothers with calves occur in large numbers. In this area, the old whaling station has been converted into a museum that allows visitors to learn the history of the southern right whale in Brazil.

During the winter, Península Valdés in Patagonia, Argentina is home to largest population of breeding southern right whales, which can reach up to 2,000 individuals. This is the largest number ever documented by both the Ocean Alliance and the Whale Conservation Institute. Whales here can be seen as close as 660 feet from the shore, and have resulted in an ecotourism boost to the city. Whale watching is also conducted in Australia, in Bunda Cliffs and Twin Rocks, found along the Great Australian Bight in South Australia in the spring and winter. During these seasons, the whales form a nursery along the coast of Warrnambool, Victoria, creating a popular whale-watching destination.

Long before the 18th century, the North Atlantic right whale had been overhunted and by 1750, its populations were nearly extinct. Because of this, whalers moved into southern waters. In 1796, Brazil’s southernmost whaling station was built in Imbituba. For the next one hundred years, American and European whalers moved into Pacific and southern waters to hunt right whales. Before the 19th century, southern right whales in New Zealand waters were numerous, but hunting caused their numbers to decline between the years of 1830 and 1850. Populations decreased so much that hunting nearly ceased, until the 20th century when industrial whaling was introduced into the area. Records showed that by the year 1937, 39,000 whales were killed in the South Pacific, 38,000 whales were killed in the South Atlantic, and 1,300 whales were killed in the Indian Ocean. However, these records were found to be incomplete, causing experts to believe that the numbers could actually higher.

After these finding, right whale hunting was made illegal due to the extreme decrease in population numbers that overhunting had caused. Despite this new law, some illegal hunting still occurred, with Madeira catching its last two whales in 1968. In Brazil, the Imbituba whaling station processed poached whales until 1973. The Soviet Union confessed that between the 1950’s and 1960’s, over 3,300 whales were poached, although they only recorded four. Because of the hunting ban of 1937, southern right whales began increasing in New Zealand and Australia as soon as 1960.

The southern right whale is protected in every country where recorded breeding populations occur. These include Uruguay, Australia, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and South Africa. In Brazil, a federal Environmental Protection Area that consists of 81 miles of coastline and 600 square miles of water was recognized in 2000 in order to protect the breeding populations that travel there. This area includes Santa Catarina State, where the government can regulate and encourage whale watching.

The southern right whale is listed on CITES as an “endangered” species and it can be found in Appendix I of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). This listing means that it is in danger of becoming extinct through all or much of its range. It is also protected by the Memorandum of Understanding for the Conservation of Cetaceans and Their Habitats in the Pacific Islands Region or Pacific Cetaceans MoU. Despite all of these listings, the southern right whale appears on the IUCN Red List with a conservation status of “Least Concern.”

Image Caption: Southern right whale (Peninsula Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina). Credit: Michaël CATANZARITI/Wikipedia

Southern Right Whale Eubalaena australis