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Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis)

Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis)

All text on this page is copyright protected: © 2014 Kelvin Aitken.
All rights reserved. Students may use this information for personal research only. Not for commercial use.

Order: Cetacea
Family: Balaenidae
Genus: Eubalaena
Species: australis
Taxonomic name: Eubalaena australis
Other Common Names: Right Whale.

Southern Right Whales are part of the Balaenidae family of Right Whales.

Mature females are larger than males growing to 100 tonnes and 17 meters. Calves are born at 4.5-6 meters in their temperate winter breeding grounds. Females generally breed once every three years.

Southern Right Whales are found in all oceans of the southern hemisphere from about 20-55 degrees south. Their breeding areas are in the three southern continents as well as oceanic islands including New Zealand and many smaller islands including the Crozet, Auckland and Campbell Islands.

Prior to their complete protection in 1937 Southern Rights were hunted close to extinction due to their being the “right” whale to hunt; slow moving, shore hugging whales which floated when dead. Cessation in hunting has seen their numbers increase over the years until now they are a common sight in many countries during their winter breeding season.

The most distinctive feature of Southern Right Whales is their raised patches of skin called callosities on the head (which is about 1/3 of the body length), snout and lips. These rough, pale patches may be any colour from white to yellow or pale pink and contrast starkly with the overall black to dark grey colouration of the body. The surface of the callosities is very rough and jagged due to the attentions of whale lice which feed on and sculpt the thick skin mounds into pads of course sandpaper. These callosities are easily spotted when the whale comes to the surface to breath especially since they also often raise their chin or entire head during social contacts with other whales.

Since these are gregarious animals they often approach boats closely so that these markings are easily seen below the surface. Each whale has a unique pattern of callosities allowing animals to be individually identified. Unlike other species of whale such as humpbacks or sperm whales the posterior edges of the flukes are usually smooth showing no unique markings and the underside is devoid of any patterns, being plain black or dark grey like the dorsal surface. On the belly, particularly around the genitals, are varied patches of white, which are also unique to each individual but harder to observe.

Southern Rights seem to belong in separate breeding groups, travelling to their own areas to reproduce. This has developed family groups that have distinctive markings. The most obvious example of this is the animals that congregate in the Auckland and Campbell islands. While most Southern Right Whales are black to dark grey with small ventral patches of white, these animals have extensive areas of white sometimes extending well up the flanks or even onto the back and head. Some individuals are even born completely white, developing dark markings later in life.

Mating among these whales is a complex affair. Males compete with each other to mate with a receptive, or even non-receptive, female. There is much chasing and manoeuvring to get the female in the right position, all the while fending off the interference of competing males who push and shove or gouge with their rough callosities. Successful mating is only obtained by a persistent male as the female will often roll onto her back in order to foil the advances of the competing males. The actual act of mating does not guarantee that a particular male will succeed in reproducing his genes as other males who mate after will flush out his sperm with theirs as the massive testes, the largest of any living animal, produce enough sperm to flood the females ovaries.

The shore hugging habits of the Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis) make land based viewing a viable alternative to the more expensive and uncomfortable boat viewing. Southern Rights will often swim right within the surf zone of sandy beaches but will rarely strand. Females feed and nurture their young in the shallows where they can best protect their young from predators such as their Killer Whale cousins or the Great White Shark.

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