Southern right whale
|Southern right whale|
The southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) is a baleen whale, one of three species classified as right whales belonging to the genus Eubalaena. Like other right whales, the southern right whale is readily distinguished from others by the callosities on its head, a broad back without a dorsal fin, and a long arching mouth that begins above the eye. Its skin is very dark grey or black, occasionally with some white patches on the belly. The right whale's callosities appear white due to large colonies of cyamids (whale lice). It is almost indistinguishable from the closely related North Atlantic and the North Pacific right whales, displaying only minor skull differences. It may have fewer callosities on its head and more on its lower lips than the two northern species. Approximately 10,000 southern right whales are spread throughout the southern part of the Southern Hemisphere.
- 1 Taxonomy
- 2 Description
- 3 Behavior
- 4 Population and distribution
- 5 Whaling
- 6 Conservation
- 7 Whale watching
- 8 See also
- 9 Gallery
- 10 Footnotes
- 11 References
- 12 External links
Right whales were first classified in the Balaena genus in 1758 by Carl Linnaeus, who at the time considered all right whales (including the bowhead) to be a single species. Through the 1800s and 1900s, in fact, the family Balaenidae has been the subject of great taxonometric debate. Authorities have repeatedly recategorized the three populations of right whale plus the bowhead whale, as one, two, three or four species, either in a single genus or in two separate genera. In the early whaling days, they were all thought to be a single species, Balaena mysticetus.
The southern right whale was initially described as Balaena australis by Desmoulins in 1822. Eventually, it was recognized that bowheads and right whales were in fact different, and John Edward Gray proposed the Eubalaena genus for the right whale in 1864. Later, morphological factors such as differences in the skull shape of northern and southern right whales indicated at least two species of right whale—one in the Northern Hemisphere, the other in the Southern Ocean. As recently as 1998, Rice, in his comprehensive and otherwise authoritative classification, Marine mammals of the world: systematics and distribution, listed just two species: Balaena glacialis (all of the right whales) and Balaena mysticetus (the bowheads).
In 2000, Rosenbaum et al. disagreed, based on data from their genetic study of DNA samples from each of the whale populations. Genetic evidence now clearly demonstrates that the northern and southern populations of right whale have not interbred for between 3 million and 12 million years, confirming the southern right whale as a distinct species. The northern Pacific and Atlantic populations are also distinct, with the North Pacific right whale being more closely related to the southern right whale than to the North Atlantic right whale.
It is believed that the right whale populations first split because of the joining of North and South America. The rising temperatures at the equator then created a second split, into the northern and southern groups, preventing them from interbreeding.
The cladogram is a tool for visualizing and comparing the evolutionary relationships between taxa. The point where a node branches off is analogous to an evolutionary branching – the diagram can be read left-to-right, much like a timeline. The following cladogram of the family Balaenidae serves to illustrate the current scientific consensus as to the relationships between the southern right whale and the other members of its family.
Other junior synonyms for E. australis have included B. antarctica (Lesson, 1828), B. antipodarum (Gray, 1843), Hunterus temminckii (Gray, 1864), and E. glacialis australis (Tomilin, 1962) (see side panel for more synonyms).
The size of an adult female is 15 m (49 ft) and can weigh up to 47 tonnes (46 long tons; 52 short tons), with the larger records of 17.5–18 m (57–59 ft) in length and 80 tonnes (79 long tons; 88 short tons) or up to 90 tonnes (89 long tons; 99 short tons) in weight, making them slightly smaller than other right whales in Northern Hemisphere. The testicles of right whales are likely to be the largest of any animal, each weighing around 500 kg (1,100 lb). This suggests that sperm competition is important in the mating process. Right whales cannot cross the warm equatorial waters to connect with the other (sub)species and (inter)breed: their thick layers of insulating blubber make it impossible for them to dissipate their internal body heat in tropical waters. However, based on historical records and unconfirmed sightings in modern periods, E. australis actually do occur in equatorial waters.
The proportion and numbers of molten-coloured individuals are notable in this species compared with the other species in the Northern Hemisphere. Some whales remain white even after growing up.
Like other right whales, they are rather active on the water surface, and curious towards human vessels. Southern rights appear to be more active and tend to interact with humans more than the other two northern species. One behavior unique to the southern right whale, known as sailing, is that of using their elevated flukes to catch the wind, remaining in the same position for considerable amount of time. It appears to be a form of play and is most commonly seen off the coast of Argentina and South Africa. Some other species such as humpback whales are also known to display. Right whales are often seen interacting with other cetaceans, especially humpback whales and dolphins. There is a record of a southern right and a humpback thought to be involved in mating activities off Mozambique.
They have very strong maternal connections with locations and gene pools they were born in, and they are known to return to their 'birth spots' at 3-years intervals. This species has been recognized to nurse unrelated orphans on occasions.
Population and distribution
The southern right whale spends summer in the far Southern Ocean feeding, probably close to Antarctica. Feeding can be occurred if there are any chances even in temperate waters such as along Buenos Aires. It migrates north in winter for breeding and can be seen by the coasts of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Namibia, Mozambique, Peru, Tristan de Cunha, Uruguay, Madagascar, New Zealand and South Africa. The total population is estimated to be around 10,000. Since hunting ceased, stocks are estimated to have grown by 7% a year. It appears that the South American, South African and Australasian groups intermix very little if at all, because maternal fidelity to feeding and calving habitats is very strong. The mother also passes these choices to her calves. If the later mentioned sighting was truly of E. australis, this species could cross the Equator on irregular occasions.
The most recent population estimates, published by National Geographic in October 2008, put the southern whale population at 10,000. An estimate of 7,000 followed a March 1998 IWC workshop. Researchers used data about adult female populations from three surveys (one in each of Argentina, South Africa and Australia, collected during the 1990s) and extrapolated to include unsurveyed areas, number of males and calves using available male:female and adult:calf ratios to give an estimated 1999 figure of 7,500 animals.
Many locations throughout Southern Hemisphere were named after the presence of southern rights and associations with man where whales are rare today in some of these locations, such as Walvis Bay, Punta Ballena, Right Whale Bay, Otago Harbour, Whangarei Harbour, South Taranaki Bight, Moutohora Island, Wineglass Bay.
Hermanus in South Africa has become known as a mecca for whale watching, during the Southern Hemisphere winter months (June - October) the southern right whales migrate to the coastal waters of South Africa, with in excess of 100 whales known to be in the Hermanus area. Whilst in the area, the whales can be seen with their young as they come to Walker Bay to calve and mate. Many behaviours such as breaching, sailing, lobtailing, or spyhopping can be witnessed. In False Bay whales can be seen from the shore from July to October while both Plettenberg Bay and Algoa Bay are also home to the southern right whales from July to December. They can be viewed from land as well as by boat with licensed operators conducting ocean safaris throughout the year.
Recent increases in numbers of whales visiting the north-eastern part of South Africa, the so-called Dolphin Coast such as around Ballito and off Umdloti Beach, indicates the whales' normal ranges are expanding and that re-colonising historical habitats will likely continue as more whales migrate further north.
Namibia and Angola
In Namibia, most confirmed whales are restricted to the south of Luderitz, the southern edge of the country, and only a handful animals, but with good increases in numbers, venture further north to historical breeding grounds such as at Walvis Bay. Until hunting, including illegal mass hunts by Soviet Union, ceased whales were rare along Namibian shores as there had been no sighting records north of Orange River until 1971, and the first calving activities were confirmed as late as the 1980s.
Madagascar and Mozambique
In contrast to the case in South Africa, right whales are becoming more common migrants, but with very small numbers, off Mozambique and Madagascar. Whales were historically seen in large numbers at various locations such as off Durban, in Delagoa/Maputo Bay and Inhaca Island, and around the Bazaruto Archipelago. The first sighting off Mozambique since the end of whaling was in 1997. In recent years, more whales seem to migrate further north to calve, such as at Île Sainte-Marie and Antsiranana Bay, nearby the northern tip of Malagasy coasts.
In Brazil, more than 300 individuals have been cataloged through photo identification (using head callosities) by the Brazilian Right Whale Project, maintained jointly by Petrobras (the Brazilian state-owned oil company) and the International Wildlife Coalition. The State of Santa Catarina hosts a concentration of breeding and calving right whales from June to November, and females from this population also calve off Argentinian Patagonia and Uruguay. In recent years, possibly due to changing habitat environments by human activities and conflicts with local fisheries, the number of whales visiting the coasts is decreasing. Sighting in locations other than Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul shows gradual increases, such as along Rio de Janeiro coasts like Macaé, Cidreira, Prado, Bahia, Castelhanos Bay in Ilha Bela, São Paulo coasts, Honey Islan,d and bays and estuaries of Paranaguá and Superagüi National Park, Paraná, and even entering into the lagoon of Lagoa dos Patos. Annual distributions have been known to reach in far more north like Abrolhos Archipelago where small numbers of whales migrate every year to calve, and certain individuals return by 3 or 4 years of intervals.
During the 2012 annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission's Scientific Committee, data was presented regarding the continued phenomenon of southern right whale strandings and high rate of mortality at Península Valdés, Argentina. Between 2003 and 2011, a total of 482 dead right whales were recorded at Península Valdés. There were at least 55 whale deaths in 2010, and 61 in 2011. As in previous years, the vast majority of strandings were calves of the season. There are increasing sightings along various other locations in recent years, such as on Golfo San Jorge, Tierra del Fuego, Puerto Deseado, Mar del Plata, Miramar, Buenos Aires, Bahía Blanca, and so on.
In Uruguay, coastal areas such as Punta del Este host congregating sites for whales in breeding seasons, but not likely as calving grounds. Their recovery helped create a whale-sanctuary off Latin America; the creation of this protected area had been prevented for nearly a decade by pro-whaling nations such as Japan.
Chile and Peru
For the critically endangered Chile/Peru population, the Cetacean Conservation Center (CCC) has been working on a separate program for right whales. This population, containing no more than 50 or less individuals, is under threats of increasing ship lanes and fishing industries. Aside from vagrants' records, Peru's coastlines possibly host one of the northernmost confirmed range of the species along with Gabon, Senegal, Tanzania, Brazilian coasts, Indian Ocean, and tropical waters including South Pacific Islands. The Alfaguara project targeting cetaceans in Chiloe may possibly target this species as well in the future. Forging grounds of this population is currently undetected, but possibly down south of Caleta Zorra to southern fiords such as from Penas Gulf to Beagle Channel. Some hopes arising for establishment of new tourism industry in eastern side of the Strait of Magellan most notably in the vicinity of Cape Virgenes and Punta Dungeness as the number of sightings increases. It is unknown whether these increases are due to re-colonisation by whales from the Patagonian population. Whales are still rare in the Beagle Channel.
Historically, populations in Oceanian regions had been very robust. There were stories of early settlers complaining that sounds of cavorting whales kept them awake at night in various locations such as on Wellington Bay and River Derwent. Satellite tracking conducted suggests that there are at least some interactions between populations in these two nations, but the extent thereof is unknown.
Southern right whales can be found in many parts of southern Australia, where the largest population is found at the Head of the Bight in South Australia, a sparsely populated area south of the middle of the Nullarbor Plain. Over 100 individuals are seen there annually from June to October. Visitors can view the whales from cliff-top boardwalks and lookouts, with whales swimming almost directly below. A more accessible South Australian location for viewing whales is Encounter Bay where the whales can be seen just off the beaches of the Fleurieu Peninsula, centred around the surfing town of Middleton. A newer nursery ground has been established on Eyre Peninsula, especially at Fowlers Bay. Numbers are much smaller at these locations compared to the Bight, with an average of a couple of whales per day, but in recent years there have been regular sightings of more than ten whales at a time off Basham Beach, near Middleton. The South Australian Whale Centre at Victor Harbor has information on the history of whaling and whale watching in the area, and maintains an on-line database of whale sightings. Whale numbers are scarcer in Victoria where the only established breeding ground which whales use each year, in very small numbers, is at Warrnambool. However, as the whales do seem to be increasing in number generally, but not showing any dramatic increases at Warrnambool, they may be extending their wintering habitats into other areas of Victoria, where the numbers of sightings are slowly increasing. These areas include around Melbourne, such as in Port Phillip Bay, along Waratah Bay, at Ocean Grove, Warrnambool, on Mornington Peninsula, in Apollo Bay, and on Gippsland coasts and at Wilsons Promontory. Tasmania is another, newer, wintering ground showing dramatic increases in recent years. The waters off the Western Australia, New South Wales, and Queensland coasts had previously been inhabited by whales. Their historical range was much wider and was spread around the southern coast of the continent, extending up to Australian Abrolhos Island, Exmouth and Shark Bay on the west coast, and to Hervey Bay and Moreton Bay to Great Barrier Reef or further north on the east coast. The east coast population is still endangered and very small (in low-tens), contributing in small numbers and limited re-colonization, but increases have been confirmed in many areas such as the vicinity of Port Jackson, Port Stephens, Twofold Bay, Jervis Bay, Broulee, Moruya River, Narooma, Byron Bay, and so on, and there have been 12 foraging areas officially announced.
Some whales can be seen in sub-Antarctic regions such as Macquarie Island. It is not known whether historical oceanic habitats such as Norfolk Island and Lord Howe Island with Lord Howe seamount chain (known as the "Middle Ground" for whalers) will be re-colonised by Australian populations in the future.
Many features are still unknown about right whale populations in New Zealand waters. However, studies by the Department of Conservation and sightings reported by locals helped to deepen understanding. Scientists used to believe there was a very small remnant population of southern right whales inhabiting New Zealand's main islands (North and South Island), containing probably 11 reproductive females. In winter, whales migrate north to New Zealand waters and large concentrations occasionally visit the southern coasts of South Island. Bay areas along Foveaux Strait from Fiordland region to northern Otago are important breeding habitats for right whales, especially Preservation Inlet, Te Waewae Bay, and Otago Peninsula. Calving activities are observed all around the nation, but with more regularity around North Island shores from the Taranaki coast in the west to Hawke's Bay, Bay of Plenty in the east, and areas in Hauraki Gulf such as Firth of Thames or Bay of Islands in the north. The population at the sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands is showing a remarkable recovery, while the recovery state in Campbell Islands is slower. There are various parts of the nation where large numbers of whales were seen historically, but sightings are less common nowadays. These areas include the Marlborough Region, especially from Clifford Bay and Cloudy Bay to Port Underwood, Golden Bay, Awaroa Bay, and coastlines on West Coast and Hokianga Harbour in Northland. Other than a handful of confirmed observations, very little information is available for whether whales still migrating to historical oceanic habitats of Kermadec Islands and Chatham Islands.
Recent study revealed that the right whale populations from New Zealand's main islands and the sub-Antarctic islands interbreed, though it is still unknown whether the two stock originally came from a single population.
In oceanic islands and offshore waters other than the above-mentioned areas, very little about the presence and recovery status of southern right whales is known. Whales' historical ranges were much greater than today. Whales were known to occur in lower latitude areas such as around Pacific Islands during the whaling era, and also frequented lower latituds of the central Indian Ocean near the Equator, especially around the area between Diego Garcia, Egmont Islands, and Great Chagos Bank in west, and Cocos (Keeling) Islands in east, being comparable to the range of the Chile/Peru stock, the northernmost of all the populations known today. Whales were also taken off Gabon, Kiribati, and Tanzania, and there have been a few of unconfirmed sightings in recent years including one by Jim Darling, a renowned whale researcher. Due to illegal whaling by the Soviet Union, the recovery of many stocks including the population off Tristan da Cunha and adjacent areas such as Gough Island had been severely hindered, resulting in relatively few numbers of visiting animals. Whales' numbers visiting historical sub-Antarctic Islands show drastic differences in quantity for respective locations: well-recovering at New Zealand Subantarctic Islands while less successful at Macquarie Island, islands in the Scotia Sea such as South Georgia, Falkland Islands, and likely to be even slower recovery-rates at other oceanic archipelagos such as Crozet Islands, Réunion, Mauritius, Marion Islands, Île Amsterdam, and Kerguelen Islands as sighting occurrences have been fewer. Antarctic distributions are also rather unclear due to low levels of sightings around oceanic islands in these areas, such as at Elephant Island.
It is unclear whether right whales have historically or currently distributed among parts of hemisphere lacking great land masses and reached far more pelagic islands such as Alejandro Selkirk and Robinson Crusoe Islands, Hanga Roa, Pitcairn, Galapagos Islands, La Roche Godon and Île Saint-Paul.
By 1750 the North Atlantic right whale was as good as extinct for commercial purposes and the Yankee whalers moved into the South Atlantic before the end of the 18th century. The southernmost Brazilian whaling station was established in 1796, in Imbituba. Over the next one hundred years, Yankee whaling spread into the Southern and Pacific Oceans, where the American fleet was joined by fleets from several European nations.
The southern right whale had been coming to New Zealand waters in large numbers before the 19th century, but was extensively hunted from 1830-1850. Hunting gradually declined with the whale population and then all but ended in coastal New Zealand waters. The beginning of the 20th century brought industrial whaling, and the catch grew rapidly. By 1937, according to whalers' records, 38,000 were captured in the South Atlantic, 39,000 in the South Pacific, and 1,300 in the Indian Ocean. Given the incompleteness of these records, the total take was somewhat higher.
As it became clear that stocks were nearly depleted, right whaling was banned in 1937. The ban was largely successful, although some illegal whaling continued for several decades. Madeira took its last two right whales in 1968. Illegal whaling continued off the coast of Brazil for many years and the Imbituba station processed right whales until 1973. The Soviet Union admitted illegally taking over 3,300 during the 1950s and 1960s, although it only reported taking 4. It was also revealed that Japan was supporting these destructive hunts by neglecting and disregarding monitoring obligations. Furthermore, there were agreements between Japan and the Soviet Union to keep their illegal mass whaling activities in foreign/international protected waters in confidence.
Whales began to be seen again in Australian and New Zealand waters from the early 1960s. It is claimed that if the illegal hunts by the Soviet Union had never happened, the New Zealand population would be three or four times larger than its current size.
The southern right whale, listed as "endangered" by CITES, is protected by all countries with known breeding populations (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa and Uruguay). In Brazil, a federal Environmental Protection Area encompassing some 1,560 km2 (600 sq mi) and 130 km (81 mi) of coastline in Santa Catarina State was established in 2000 to protect the species' main breeding grounds in Brazil and promote regulated whale watching.
The southern right whale is listed on Appendix I of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) as this species has been categorized as being in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant proportion of their range.
One possibly significant contributor to the calf mortality rate has alarmed scientists – since at least 1996, kelp gulls off the coast of Patagonia have been observed attacking and feeding on live right whales. The kelp gull uses its powerful beak to peck down several centimetres into the skin and blubber, often leaving the whales with large open sores – some of which have been observed to be half a meter in diameter. This predatory behavior, primarily targeted towards mother/calf pairs, has been continually documented in Argentinian waters, and continues today. Observers note that the whales are spending up to a third of their time and energy performing evasive maneuvers – therefore, mothers spend less time nursing, and the calves are thinner and weaker as a result. Researchers speculate that many years ago, waste from fish processing plants allowed the gull populations to soar. Their resulting overpopulation, combined with reduced waste output, caused the gulls to seek out this alternative food source. Scientists fear that the gulls' learned behaviour could proliferate, and the IWC Scientific Committee has urged Brazil to consider taking immediate action if and when similar gull behaviour is observed in their waters. Such action may include the removal of attacking gulls, following Argentina's lead in attempting to reverse the trend.
The southern right whale has made Hermanus, South Africa one of the world centers for whale watching. During the winter months (June to October), southern right whales come so close to the shoreline that visitors can watch them from the shore as well as from strategically placed hotels. Hermanus also has two boat–based whale watching operators. The town employs a "whale crier" (cf. town crier) to walk through the town announcing where whales have been seen. Southern right whales can also be watched at other winter breeding grounds. In False Bay whale-watching can be done from the shore or from the boats of licensed operators in Simon's Town. Plettenberg Bay along the Garden Route of South Africa is another mecca for whale watching not only for southern rights (July to December)but throughout the year. There are both land based and ocean safaris boat based whale encounters on offer in this beautiful town. Southern right whales can also be seen off the coast of Port Elizabeth with marine eco tours running from the Port Elizabeth harbour, as some southern right whales make Algoa Bay their home for the winter months.
Whales are occasionally observed during tours in Namibia, Mozambique and Madagascar, where sighting rates along Namibian coasts shows dramatic increases in the recent years.
In Brazil, Imbituba in Santa Catarina has been recognized as the National Right Whale Capital and holds annual Right Whale Week celebrations in September, when mothers and calves are more often seen. The old whaling station there is now a museum that documents the history of right whales in Brazil. In Argentina, Península Valdés in Patagonia hosts (in winter) the largest breeding population, with more than 2,000 catalogued by the Whale Conservation Institute and Ocean Alliance. As in the south of Argentina, the whales come within 200 m (660 ft) of the main beach in the city of Puerto Madryn and form a part of the large ecotourism industry. Uruguay's Parliament on 4 September 2013, has become the first country in the world to make all of its territorial waters a safehaven for whales and dolphins. Every year, dozens of whales are sighted, especially in the departments of Maldonado and Rocha during the months of winter. Swimming activities for commercial objectives had been banned in the area in 1985, but is legalized in Gulf of San Matías where this is the only location in the world for tourists to be permissioned to swim with the species. Land-based watching and occasional kayaking with whales activities are Various other locations where is not renown for whale-watching industries as much as Puerto Madryn and with less restrictions on approaching whales, such as at Puerto Deseado, Mar del Plata, and Miramar in Buenos Aires.
Though their numbers are dangerously small, land-based sightings of whales are on the increase in recent years off Chile and Peru, with some hope of creating new tourism industries, especially in the Strait of Magellan, most notably around Cape Virgenes.
In Australia's winter and spring, southern right whales can be seen from the Bunda Cliffs and Twin Rocks, both along the remote Great Australian Bight in South Australia. In Warrnambool, Victoria, a right whale nursery is popular with tourists in the winter and spring. Their normal range is extending with the species recovering and re-colonizing other areas of the continent, especially around coastal waters of New South Wales and Tasmania. In Tasmania, the first birth since the 19th century was recorded in 2010 in the River Derwent.
Similarly, southern right whales may provide chances for the public to observe whales from shore on New Zealand's coasts with greater regularity than in the past, especially in southern Fiordland, Southland through to the Otago coast, and on the North Island coast, especially in Northland and other locations such as the Bay of Plenty and the South Taranaki Bight. Births of calves could have always been occurring on the main islands' coasts, but were confirmed with two cow-calf pairs in 2012.
In the Subantarctic Islands and in the vicinity of Antarctica, where few regulations exist or are enforced, whales can be observed on expedition tours with increasing probability. The Auckland Islands are a specially designated sanctuary for right whales, where whale-watching tourism is prohibited without authorization.
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- An online educational documentary film about southern right whales - whale trackers