Southern right whale (Eubalaena australis)

French: Baleine Australe
Spanish: Ballena Franca
GenusEubalaena (1)
SizeLength: up to 18 m (2)
Calf length: 5.50 m (2)
Calf weight: 1,000 – 1,500 kg (2)
Weightup to 80,000 kg (2)

The southern right whale is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). The Chile-Peru subpopulation is listed as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List (1). It is listed on Appendix I of CITES (3) and Appendix I of the Convention for the Conservation of Migratory Species (4). It is also classified as endangered under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and protected within Australian waters under the Whale Protection Act 1980 (2).

Known as a right whale because during the height of whaling efforts, this was the ‘right’ whale to catch, as it is large, slow-moving and floats when dead (5). This whale is easy to identify as it has a uniformly dark colour with white callosities (outgrowths of hard skin) on and around the head which can even be used to distinguish individuals (2). The body is rotund and the head is very large, making up one third of the total length. Unusually for baleen whales, the southern right whale does not have a dorsal fin or a grooved throat. The flippers are short and wide, and the blow hole is V-shaped (2).

The southern right whale is only found in the southern hemisphere in all waters between 30 and 60 º south (2).

A migratory species, the southern right whale is found in the open ocean of the most southern region of its range during the summer months where prey populations are more abundant, but migrates up to the coastal regions of more northerly regions of its range during the winter and spring (2).

Southern right whales belong in separate breeding groups which travel to their own areas to reproduce (5). Up to eight males may mate with one female (5) between July and August, but unusually for mammals, aggression between males is minimal (2). Females calve once every three years between June and August, with a gestation period of 11 to 12 months. Calving females go for four months during the winter months without eating, and give birth to a single, large calf weighing up to 1,500 kilograms (2). Females will nurture and feed their calves in the shallows where they are well protected from attacks by orcas and great white sharks (5). Calves are weaned after a year, and will reach sexual maturity at nine to ten years (2).

These enormous animals eat some of the smallest creatures in the ocean, filtering water through long and numerous baleen plates to feed on the small plankton including larval crustaceans and copepods (2).

Southern right whales produce short, low-frequency moans, groans, belches and pulses (7). Typical feeding dives last between 10 and 20 metres and southern right whales are also frequently seen at or above the surface of the water, slapping the water with its tail and flippers, rolling, and breaching (launching out of the water and landing on the side or back). The function of these behaviours is not known (7).

Following serious over-exploitation from the 1600s until the 1930s, the southern right whale population became dangerously low (2) (7). International protection in 1935 allowed a slow increase, but illegal whaling continued into the 1960s. Since then, the population has been increasing at the calculated ‘maximum rate’ (6). However, whilst this huge and unsustainable threat has largely been eliminated, pressures on the southern right whale still exist. Disturbance from vessels, divers, coastal industrial activity, entanglement in fishing gear and pollution are all concerns (2).

International protection by the International Whaling Commission and individual country programs to protect whales has produced significant results since the ban on hunting this species (6). Conservation activities currently include monitoring population numbers and behaviour through the use of photo identification of individuals, assessing the effects of disturbance, and education programs (2).

For further information on whaling see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2009)
  2. Department of the Environment and Heritage: Australian Government (June, 2008)
  3. CITES (November, 2004)
  4. CMS (November, 2004)
  5. Marine Themes (November, 2004)
  6. Kenney, R.D. (2002) North Atlantic, North Pacific, and Southern Right Whales. In: Perrin, W.F., Würsig, B. and Thewissen, J.G.M. (Eds) Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Academic Press, London.
  7. WWF (June, 2008)