The Southern Right Whales


At least 37 species of whales and dolphins can be found in the waters off South Africa. These include Bryde's Whale, the Humpback Whale (which is the one that 'sings'), the Killer Whale (alsoknown as the Orca) and the Southern Right Whale. The most common of these whales is the Southern Right Whale.


The Southern Right Whale is a migratory whale, which means that they spend one season in one place and the rest of the year in another, and travel long distances between these seasons.


In summer (December - May), they are in the cold polar regions of the Southern Hemisphere where food (mainly krill) is present and in quantity. Winters (June - November) are spent around the shallow coastal waters of Southern Africa, South America and Australia.


Our South African coast is exactly what the Southern Right Whale need during this season. The shallow, sandy-bottomed and sheltered bays are perfect for mating, calving, nursing their young and resting.


Swimming only meters from the shore they provide unsurpassed whale watching opportunities between June and November.


Whales tend to show off in the following manner:

  • Blowing: A sound made when expelling air through the blowhole. This is accompanied by a spout of condensed water vapour. This however is the normal breathing pattern of the animal.
  • Breaching: Leaping out of water in an arching back flip and falling back on their sides or back with a resounding slap. This is believed to be a way of communication, exercise or possibly to scratch the parasites off that live on whales. They can braech 3 - 8 times in succesion.
  • Lobtailing: The slapping of flukes and tail on the water, causing a loud sound, appears to be a means of communication.
  • Spy hopping: The head and body are lifted vertically, as far as the flippers, above the surface. This enables them to see what is happening around them above water.


Although the humpback whales are the best "singers", Southern Rights do produce low frequency sounds to communicate with one another.


The Southern Right Whale got its name during the time when they were hunted. They were referred to as the "right" whales to kill. They were particularly rich in oil and slow swimmers making them easy to catch. They were also easy find and transport when dead as they floated.


They are named "Southern" as there are two species of Right Whales, one in the Northern Hemisphere and the South African species in the Southern Hemisphere.


Females measure about 13.9m and males are generally slightly smaller, average weight estimated 41 tonnes. They have a life expectancy of about 50 years.


Southern Right whales are black or dark grey in colour. They have a large, bow-shaped heads and arched mouths. Unusually, Southern Right whales are relatively hairy with up to 300 hairs on the tip of the lower jaw and about 100 on the upper jaw.


The Southern Right differs from most other whales in the following ways:

  • It has no dorsal fin on its back
  • When it breathes out there is a V-shaped cloud above the water.
  • Presence of callosities on its head. These callosities are white warts or rough skin patches on which little creatures, called whale lice, are attached.


Southern Right whales can remain under water for about 6 minutes. They swim fairly slowly at an average speed of 6 kilometres an hour when cruising. They can reach 11 kilometres an hour in short bursts.


Southern right whales are baleen whales. This mean that they have about 200 to 270 pairs of fine 'plates' which hang down from the upper jaw like vertical venetian blinds, through which they filter their food. These plates may be up to 3 metres long.



Their favourite food is small animals called copepods (a plankton crustacean) of which they consume up to 600kg per day. The whales swim with their mouths open so that the baleen plates can filter out the water and retain the krill. They eat up to 1½ tons a day of the tiny krill. They are seasonal feeders, eating in winter and living off their blubber in the breeding months in the north.


One female will mate with a number of males. There can be even up to 8 males at a time trying to mate with one female. During mating, there is a lot of activity on the surface (splashing, pushing, shoving, large and frequent blows). Right whales only long-term bonds are between mother and calf.


Females usually have one calf every three years. gestation (pregnancy) is about 13 months. Usually only one calf is born although twins sometimes occur. Most calves are born during August.


The calf is born tail first and immediately swims to the surface of the water to take its first breath. Initially it is helped by the mother but within thirty minutes of birth it can swim. The newborn calf is about 4,5 to 6 metres long. About 3% of calves are born white, but this usually becomes grey after a few months.


They suckle for 4 to 8 months and drink up to 600 liters of milk per day growing 3 cm per day. It is weaned after about 6-8 months by which time it has reached about 9 metres in length.


The Southern Right Whales move south after the mating and calving season ends (November / December). By April they are 2000 kilometers South of Cape Town where they then feed.



Southern right whales are regarded as an endangered species as their numbers have been considerably reduced in the last 200 years. Between 1790 and 1825 it is estimated that over 12 000 southern rights were killed by whalers of the South African coast.


Now collisions with ships or entanglement in fishing gear are the main dangers. There are now about 4500 southern right whales, with about 1500 coming to southern Africa. Southern rights are increasing in number (7% every year) doubling in size every ten years, which means that they should have returned to their optimum population size in about 2040.


In 1980 and again in 1984 legislation was introduced in South Africa to protect whales. It is now illegal to shoot at whales, or harass them by coming closer than 300 metres in any craft.


The humpback whales are seen as they migrate along our coast between May and November en-route to their feeding and breeding grounds off Mozambique and Angola.

Bryde'swhales are found further offshore in False Bay all year round, and the orca ("killer" whale) is also occasionally seen. Heaviside's and dusky dolphins are found in the colder waters on the western side of the Peninsula, and bottlenose, common and humpback dolphins on the eastern (False Bay) side. 


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