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Are there any southern left whales? Getting to know the southern right whale

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Wild About Whales
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Southern Right Whale - Jodie Lowe

Recent sightings of southern right whales along the NSW coast have brought this baleen beauty back into the spotlight that is often devoted to the flashier humpbacks. So, what makes the southern right whale so special?

Lumpy bumpy whales

These gentle giants can easily be identified by the large white or grey bumps on their head, which are known as callosities. These bumps are made from organic material similar to fingernails and get their pale colouring from colonies of whale lice. While the formation of callosities is unique to each whale, they all tend to have a large callosity on the crown of the head, which is referred to as a bonnet.

Learn more about how to identify southern right whales.

Southern Right Whale - Jodie Lowe

Image credit: Jodie Lowe

What makes a whale ‘right’?

Southern right whales get their name not from being right-flippered or preferring to swim to the right of objects, but from 19th century whalers, who considered them as the ‘right’ whale to catch. There are two other species of right whales: the North Atlantic right whale and the North Pacific right whale.

This slow-moving whale has a cruising speed of only three kilometres per hour and heads into the shallow waters of coves, estuaries and bays to calve, which made them ideal targets for whalers. Their blubber, oils and meat were all highly prized by the whaling industry.

A whale of a crisis

Extensive hunting throughout the 1800s and early 1900s saw the numbers of right whales worldwide drop dramatically. It is estimated that southern right whale populations dropped from 55,000-70,000 to just 300 individuals by the 1920s.

Now a protected species, southern right whale numbers have started to increase, although the Australian population is thought to only be around 3,500.

How you can help

Southern right whales are particularly vulnerable during calving season, when they come close to shore to give birth. While it may be tempting to get closer for that perfect selfie, it is crucial to always respect whale approach zones to provide them with a safe and stress-free space.

Always remember to take any old fishing line and any other rubbish with you after a day out on the water; southern right whales can be injured by becoming entangled in fishing line and ropes or by ingesting things they shouldn’t.

Discover other ways you can take action today.

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Header image credit: Jodie Lowe

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