Southern Right Whale

A few weeks ago a whale was sighted offshore from where we live. We joined a large crowd of people watching from the beach. It was what’s called a southern right whale, and had been seen farther down the beach a few days earlier. Although only several hundred yards offshore, there wasn’t much to see—a black smudge on the surface of the ocean, occasionally a flash of a tale, a few times a fine spray of mist emerging from its blowhole as it breathed. The whale made the papers here. Later presumably the same whale was seen near Auckland.

You might think whales would be relatively common here in New Zealand. They used to be but not so much anymore. The southern right whale, the species we saw, has a particularly interesting, if not tragic, story. But first we have to go back a little in time . . .

Fifty-four million years ago a land mammal decided to go back into the ocean. This might seem strange since most animals, including mammals had originally come out of the sea and evolved on land. But this mammal thought otherwise. Perhaps it had had enough of its land cousins. One can only hazard a guess.

Over time, this mammal, now in the water, and which is initially speculated to have looked somewhat like a hyena, evolved. Its upper limbs became shorter and eventually became flippers. Its nostrils over time migrated to the top of its head allowing it to breathe more easily in the water. It evolved thick layers of blubber to protect it from the cold. Its form became streamlined and its tail a powerful propulsion device, all the while maintaining all its mammalian characteristics including the necessity to breath air and to nurse its young. It became what we now know as a whale.

Currently there are 90 living species of cetaceans, which include both whales and the related dolphins and porpoises. Whales are commonly divided into two main groups: toothed whales and baleen whales. Toothed whales, similar to the famed sperm whale Moby Dick or the notorious orca or killer whale, have teeth and eat their prey. Baleen whales have narrow plates of baleen, a keratin substance similar in composition to fingernails, in their mouths. These are essentially huge fringed brushes inside their mouths that act as sieves. The whale draws in water and filters it through the baleen, capturing huge numbers of small marine crustaceans, and then expels the water swallowing the food.

The famed blue whale is a baleen whale taking in up to 6 tons of water in a single gulp, then closing its mouth and forcing the water out through the baleen trapping food and then swallowing it. As a matter of record, the blue whale is the largest animal that has ever lived. Yes, that includes dinosaurs. Blue whales weigh somewhere around 200 tons (400,000 lbs.) and are 100 feet (30 m) long or as long as a Boeing 737. Their hearts are the size of a small car (1300 lbs.).

The southern right whale (Eubalaena australis), with which I began this story, is also a baleen whale. Weighing around 52 tons (104,000 lbs.) and around 49 feet (15 m) in length, they can live up to 70 years. Black in color—for this reason they have also been called black whales—they have large broad pectoral fins, and are also notable for lacking a dorsal fin, the upright fin on the top (back) of a whale’s body.


Southern right whale — note callosities on head, large pectoral fins and no dorsal fin. (1)

The head of a southern right whale makes up a third of the animal’s length and is covered with callosities, raised patches of white, rough skin that apparently become infested with whale lice. Apparently the young are born with these callosities.

Southern right whale (2)

Southern right whale (2)

Southern right whales have a strongly arched mouth. To me it looks as if they have almost a sardonic, Joker-like grin. They swim with their mouths partly open. Water flows in and then out through the sides of their mouths allowing them to capture the marine crustaceans on which they feed in over 500 baleen plates which hang down like great curtains inside their mouths. On the inside edge of each piece of baleen is fine, fringed hair which traps the prey.

Baleen in mouth of southern right whale (3)

Baleen in mouth of southern right whale (3)

Why are they called right whales? For that we need to know something about whaling (whale hunting) in general and New Zealand whaling in particular, which brings us to the next part of our story . . .

Southern right whales—there are northern right whales also—are called right whales because they were the ‘right’ whales to hunt and kill. They were given this name by whalers in the 1800s because this particular species of whale was slow, easy to approach, lives close to shore, floats when killed and gives a high yield of oil.

In Cook’s three voyages to New Zealand, he had noted ample marine life including whales in the waters surrounding New Zealand. When the British began exporting convicts to Australia in 1791, ships began to hunt for whales and seals prior to returning to England in order to make the return trip profitable.

Prior to the development of petroleum products, and later electricity in the 20th Century, whale oil was a highly sought after fuel source for heating and lighting both in America and Europe. Whaling vessels began to ply the waters around New Zealand in the early 1800s with a large increase in vessels, predominantly British and American, in the 1830s.

Initially, sperm whales were the most desirable whales since they provided a fine, high quality oil that burned smoke-free and odorless. As the sperm whale numbers diminished, other smaller and supposedly lesser whales including the right whale were hunted and killed.

It was noted that right whales migrated up the coasts of New Zealand often calving in specific bays. The whalers took advantage of this. While many whales were hunted by ships at sea, over time at least one hundred shore-based whaling stations were established in New Zealand which took advantage of the migration routes and calving areas.

The mechanics of hunting whales was similar whether from ship or shore. First, the whale would be sighted (the familiar ‘thar she blows’). Then launches would set out. Usually carrying six to eight men, the launch would stealthily approach the whale and harpoon it. A rope connected the whale to the boat. The boat would then often be dragged by the whale, and after a time, the whale would tire and be killed with a lance. Then the hard work of dragging the whale back to the ship or to the shore began. The whale’s blubber was then cut into pieces and boiled in large pots. The valuable oil was ladled off and placed in casks.


Pouring whale oil —shore-based New Zealand whaling operation. (4)

Like so many other things that to some now seem almost unfathomable in their harshness or perceived cruelty, one must remember that food and fuel have always been necessary for human survival, and commercial enterprise part of mankind’s reality. In fact, the end of whaling was due more to the economics of the situation rather than from public outcry. The men who lived and worked in the whaling industry were by definition, brave, and certainly extremely hard working. The Maori also took an active role in the whaling industry both on shore and working on ships.


Whalebone corsets — whalebone being baleen. (5)

During this time, baleen (given the misnomer whalebone) also became a profitable commodity. Baleen was tough and springy and used to stiffen corsets, for buggy whips and for bristles on brushes. For a time, the baleen from whales such as the right whale became worth more than the oil.

Unfortunately, the over-hunting of whales including the practice of harpooning both mothers and calves led to the southern right whale becoming commercially extinct within a relatively few years.

“New Zealand now offers little resource from its latitudes, the black whales, formerly so numerous, have nearly disappeared and there are a great many ships.”

—French whaling captain in New Zealand waters, 1842

By 1850-1860 the great days of shore-based whaling were over, and by 1900 right whales had almost disappeared from New Zealand. In the four decades leading up to 1870 it is estimated that 300,000 whales of all species were killed—enough to drive many species close to extinction.

However, whaling continued. The humpback whale began to be caught in larger numbers. For a time here in New Zealand, steel nets were placed between rocks and the shore in order to trap humpbacks, and with the dawn of the 20th Century, mechanized whaling began. The development of steam ships and the harpoon gun, which fired a harpoon with an exploding tip, led to a further diminution in whale numbers. In the next one hundred years, two million whales would be killed in the Southern Hemisphere alone. In the later part of the 20th Century, factory ships notably from Norway, Russia, Britain and Japan ‘harvested’ the whales of the Antarctic. Some ships were able to process an entire whale in twenty minutes. Illegal Soviet Union whaling in the 1950s and 1960s led to a further reduction of whale numbers. As recently as 1958 a Russian whaling fleet consisting of more than 25 boats of various sizes was made welcome in Wellington. In the later years of the 20th Century and now, whales are hunted primarily for their meat. At least in Japan, one source says whale meat sells for $80/lb.

The last whale killed in New Zealand waters was in 1964. In 1986 New Zealand supported the worldwide moratorium on whaling. Japan and the Russian Federation opposed the legislation. More frequently countries including Japan, Norway and Iceland get around the moratorium by hunting whales for so-called scientific purposes.

So what happened to the southern right whale, the species of whale we saw from the beach a few weeks ago?

As a matter of record, the southern right whale has been protected by international law since 1935. But just to show how devastating the drop in right whale numbers has been, the total pre-whaling population of southern right whales is estimated to have been 60,000-120,000 individuals. By 1920 as few as 60 mature breeding females may have survived. In New Zealand waters, the pre-whaling population of southern right whales was estimated as 22,000-32,000. By 1923 less than fifty individuals were felt to have remained.

The last right whale was killed in New Zealand in 1927, and for the next 35 years up until 1963, not a single right whale was seen along New Zealand’s entire coast.

More recently, between 1976 and 1991, no sightings occurred and there were just eleven sightings between 1992 and 2002, which fortunately included a few cow-calf pairs. Between 2003 and 2010 things improved slightly with 125 sightings reported from the mainland including 28 cow-calf pairs. Currently the estimate for the total population (entire Southern Hemisphere) of southern right whales is 12,000-15,000.

Part of the reason right whales haven’t returned to New Zealand coastlines in any great numbers is postulated to be due to what’s called cultural memory. When a calf is born, it remembers the location of its birth, and as it grows and develops it learns and remembers migration routes. Later it returns to those areas. With the slaughter of so many right whales, the cultural memory of whales of migrating along the coast and breeding in New Zealand bays has felt to have been lost. DNA testing has shown that at least some of the right whales now seen along the New Zealand coast are related to a separate, distinct group of whales in the Antarctic, rather than to the whales that once inhabited these waters. It can only be hoped that the southern right whale will once again colonize the shores of New Zealand.

Southern right whale breaching — perhaps they shall return in great numbers. (6)

Southern right whale breaching — perhaps they shall return. (6)




Todd, B. (2014). Whales and Dolphins of Aotearoa New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: Te Papa Press.

Bateman, D. (2009). New Zealanders and the Sea. Auckland, New Zealand: David Bateman Ltd.

Papastavrou, V. (2004). Whale. New York, New York: DK Publishing, Inc.


Photo credits:

1)Discovering Whales – The Right Whale × 253Search by image
2) × 639Search by image
‪Scale: A huge 50 tonne Southern Right Whale in waters off the Auckland Islands in

3) × 366Search by image
An amazing photograph of Sarah the southern right whale feeding at Fowlers Bay, west of Ceduna. Picture: Rod Keogh Source: Supplied

4)‪Pouring whale oil – Whaling – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand
www.teara.govt.nz500 × 380Search by image

5)Queens of the Wild Frontier: March 2015
hrhqueenalexandria.blogspot.com300 × 622Search by image

6)Southern Right Whale in Algoa Bay | ALCYONE SELF-CATERING × 666Search by image



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