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Right Whales

Southern Right whale (Eubalaena australis) and Northern Right whale (Eubalaena glacialis)

Right Whales were regarded by Nineteenth century whalers as the 'right' whales for their industry.

By the 1860's their numbers were so severely depleted that whalers could no longer hunt them profitably. From an estimated world population of 100,000 whales, 30,000 were taken from Australian and New Zealand waters alone.

Today the world population numbers about 2,000 of which 500 visit southern Australian waters to mate and breed. It is feared that the eastern American stock, now less than 300, is in great danger of extinction due to the accidental deaths of right whales involved in shipping accidents.

All Right whales are protected internationally under the convention for the regulation of whaling and have not been actively hunted since 1935.

Right Whales are slow, skimmer-feeders. Their baleen plates, up to 2 metres long, filter out plankton and krill (small shrimp-like crustaceans) as they cruise along the surface. They seldom reach a speed of 9km/hr. and take over a month to swim the 5000 km or so distance from the sub-Antarctic waters.

The whales migrate to warmer temperate waters to give birth and mate. They also teach their young how to swim in the warm sheltered waters. The new-born calves have virtually no blubber to insulate them from the cold. They are fattened on rich whale milk which has a 40% fat content. This produces spectacular results and whale calves may double their weight within a week. However, there is no food here for the mothers, who must fast while they raise their young.

Most births occur in early winter, after which the adults begin their courtship displays of breaching, tail splashing, jostling and caressing.

Calves stay close to their mothers, suckling for a year or less and playing together. Calves learn skills they need to survive in one of our planet's great wilderness areas, the Ocean.

Northern and Southern Hemisphere species are identical externally and probably should not have separate specific status (the northern species is know as Balaena glacialis). The body is robust and narrows rapidly in front of the huge tail flukes. Its colour is black (occasionally brown) and sometimes mottled, with white patches on the chin and belly. The head is large comprising 30% of the length of the body. The area around the blowholes, head and jaws have several large white, grey or yellowish skin callosites. There are numerous hairs on the chin and upper jaw. A long narrow rostrum suspends the baleen plates on each side of the upper jaw. The baleen is usually dark brown, dark grey or black but may be pale grey or white in younger animals.

The Right whale has a broad back with no fin. It has broad smooth flukes deeply notched with a concave trailing edge and pointed tips. The flippers are large and spatulate with an angular outer edge.

The blow is wide and V-shaped due to the wide separation of the two blowholes. It can reach 5m (16ft) high and may appear as one jet from the side or in the wind. Breathing sequence involves 5 to 10 minutes at the surface, blowing once every minute, followed by a dive for 10-20 minutes sometimes longer.

The Right whale is a slow, lumbering swimmer, but is often acrobatic. It often breaches, sometimes up to 10 times or more in a row. The splash can be heard from up to 1km (3/4 mile) away. It may also wave a flipper above the surface, flipper-slap, lobtail and head-stand. Sometimes raised flukes in the air are used as sails, allowing the wind to push it through the water. This appears to be a playful activity as animals have often been seen swimming back to do it again.

The Right whale is an inquisitive and playful whale and has been observed poking, bumping or pushing objects around that are in the water. During breeding season and mostly at night the Right whale often bellows and moans loudly.