Description & Characteristics:
Considered by whalers to be the ‘right’ whales to hunt, Southern Right whales were fortunate to have escaped extinction. Slow swimmers, they made easy targets for harpooners in the early 1800’s, and their rich oil-filled blubber meant that they floated after being killed. Now, slowly recovering, Southern Right whales are found traveling the Southern Ocean from South Africa’s coastline in winter where they breed to Antarctic feeding grounds during the summer months.
Southern Right whales are baleen whales with dark gray bodies, bow-shaped lower jaws, and massive heads that measure up to one-quarter of their body length. The heads are hairier than most whales; up to 300 hairs are found on the tip of the lower jaw and 100 are on the upper jaw. Horny growths called callosities frequently form behind the two blowholes near the top of the head; also on the chin, above the eyes, on the lower lip, and on the rostrum (the beak-like upper jaw). Researchers use the patterns of these growths to help identify individual whales. Right whales have very small eyes and large flippers. As with all baleen whales, the females are slightly larger than males. Hanging from the jaws of Right whales are about 200-270 pairs of long black baleen plates with fine grayish bristles. These thin, plastic-like plates can be up to 10 feet long.
Like all baleen whales, Southern Rights are seasonal feeders and carnivores using their baleen as a filter to strain out plankton, krill, and tiny crustaceans from the water. Swimming at about three or four miles per hour, they move their open mouths back and forth, constantly eating. On occasion, they may be found bottom feeding on benthic prey from the mud on the ocean floor.
For Southern Right whales, calving and mating occur in the coastal waters off southern Africa. Females give birth in the early spring after a seven to ten month gestation period. Once the calf is old enough to swim for long periods of time, they will return to the nutrient-rich waters of Antarctica. The calf will nurse on the mother’s fat-rich milk for up to one year during which time it will double in length and increase its weight fivefold. Mother and calf form long-term bonds.