Southern Right Whales

Gentle Giants of the Deep

May has been a stellar month along the Garden Route this year. We have enjoyed gloriously balmy days – often ending off with seriously feel-good sunsets. Adding to our current sense of ‘joie de vivre’ is the fact that any day now the indigo depths adjacent to Knysna will be teeming with whales. In sync with the natural rhythms of life, these incredible cetaceans migrate epic distances each year to reach our Knysna waters. They travel past the Garden Route and continue skirting our coastline along an instinctive migratory route to the warmer waters up north.

Profile of a southern right whale
Profile of a southern right whale distinctly showing their pronounced curved mouth.

Apparently a couple of early-bird southern right whales have already been spotted. They are however, yet to arrive in large numbers. Of the two migratory whale species that visit us every year, namely humpbacks and southern rights, it is the latter species which are usually first to arrive in our waters. Their migratory behaviour is a little different from the humpback whales. While humpbacks tend to make a straight b-line for the subtropical waters up north, southern right whales prefer to spend a little more time chilling out in the calmer, sheltered bays along our coastline. Some of the largest numbers of southern rights are in fact known to congregate in the beautiful San Sebastian Bay in Witsand, which is a protected southern right whale nursery and where boat-based whale watching is not permissible. Hermanus is also a haven for this species.

Southern right whales have 'callosities' on their heads and upper jaw.
Southern right whales have ‘callosities’ on their heads and upper jaw.

Southern right whales have many unique characteristics, the most obvious being the huge growths called ‘callosities’ on their heads and upper jaw. Whale lice, which is a type of crustacean, live on these callosities, making them appear pale. Their most brag-worthy attribute by far is that they have the largest testicles in the animal kingdom – with each pair weighing a whopping ton! They also have a large head, which is about a quarter of their body length with a strongly arched mouth, which holds 220-270 long, narrow baleen plates. Southern right whales have two blowholes and they are easily recognisable from afar because of their v-shaped blow which can reach up to 5m high. 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. 

Southern right whales have two blowholes
Southern right whales have two blowholes on the top of their large heads.

Their name is derived from the fact that whalers considered them the ‘right whale’ to catch. This was because they are slow moving and easy to approach, tend to live close to shore and float when they are dead, which made accessing their valuable oil, meat and whalebone a lot simpler. As a result they were intensely targeted by whalers during the 1800’s (between 1805 and 1844 alone, about 45,000 right whales were killed). This left them teetering on the brink of extinction.


southern right whale fluke
A southern right whale can also easily be identified by it’s fluke. They usually show their flukes above the water when the are about to take a deep dive.

Thanks to an outright ban on commercial whaling in 1937, their numbers have been increasing significantly with each passing year, and today, many hundreds of southern right whales can been seen all along our coastline throughout the winter season. Last year, our first whale sighting of the season was very exciting. About 10 or more southern rights spent at least a week or so congregating in the protected waters of Buffalo Bay, before continuing their northwards. There was lots of breaching and gambolling by these first arrivals and it was an extraordinary sight to behold, and one made that much sweeter by considering the fact that at one point, this species had all but been wiped out from the world’s oceans by the ruthless commercial whaling industry. 

Southern right whale breaching
A juvenile Southern right whale breaching just off Buffalo Bay last year.

Southern right whales have made a significant comeback, one which we at Ocean Odyssey applaud. It truly is one of the most heart-warming and beautiful ocean conservation success stories of our time. We need to do everything we can to ensure their continued survival.