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Blog: Whale tales

Paul Chai journeyed up the NSW coastline during the 2012 whale migrating season. Recount his trip.


Southern Right Whales

The Southern Right whale is a baleen whale and one of 3 species classified as right whales. This species is easily distinguished from others by:

  • broad back without a dorsal fin
  • wide pectoral fins
  • a long arching mouth that begins above the eye
  • small rough patches of skin (or callosities) on its large head.

It has very dark grey or black skin, with occasional white patches on the belly. Its two separate blow holes produce a distinguishing V-shaped blow.

Southern right’s have an enormous head which is up to one quarter of total body length. The callosities on the head are made of hard material, similar to human finger-nails, which appear white due to large colonies of whale lice called cyamids. The number, shape and position of the callosities are unique to each individual whale, and allow us to tell them apart. Southern right whales tend to have a large callosity at the front of the head, called a “bonnet”.

Whaling of southern right whales

Land-based whaling in Australia initially concentrated on southern right whales. They get their name because they were the “right” whale to catch: they were slow-swimming, floated when dead, and provided large amounts of valuable products - particularly oil for illumination and lubrication.

Commercial whaling began in Australia in 1820, taking around 75% of the southern right whale population between 1835 and 1845, when the industry collapsed. It took another 90 years before they were officially protected.

An estimated 12,000 southern right whales are spread throughout the southern hemisphere, compared to an original population before whaling of more than 100,000. However, their numbers are growing at around 7% per annum, which means that sightings are becoming increasingly common.

Migration and whale watching

These days, southern right whales delight whale watchers with their peculiar looks and crowd attracting antics, like breaching and headstands.

Southern right whales are regularly on the Australian coast from about mid-May to mid-November.

Southern Right Whale facts

Length  Adults: 14m to 18m; Calves: 5m to 6m at birth
Weight  Adults: up to 80 tonnes; Calves: 1 to 1.5 tonnes at birth
Gestation: 11 to 12 months
Weaning age: 11 to 12 months
Calving interval: generally 3 years
Physical maturity age: unknown; Length: 16m
Sexual maturity age: 9 to 10 years
Length: 12m to 13m
Mating season: July to August
Calving season: June to August
Cruising speed: 3km/hr
Blow pattern: V-shaped bushy blow, up to 5m
Protected since 1935

  • NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service
  • NSW