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Back from the brink: recent 'baby boom' offers new hope for endangered southern right whale

Date: 17-Aug-17
Author: Rebecca Gilling

Southern right whales' numbers are picking up again © Chris Farrell

Southern right whales' numbers are picking up again

Recent sightings of southern right whale mothers and babies off the coast of southern Australia are an encouraging sign for a species that was driven to the edge of extinction by whaling in the 1800s.

A slow moving creature that floated when dead and produced an abundance of valuable products, the southern right was so named because it was the ‘right’ whale to catch.

Commercial whaling began in Australian waters in 1820. By 1845, an estimated pre-whaling population of 100,000 had plummeted by 75%, leading to the collapse of the industry.  It was not until 1935 that they were officially protected, and they have remained on the endangered species list ever since.

Southern right whales are easily distinguished by their broad back, lack of a dorsal fin and white facial markings called callosities, which serve to identify individual animals.  Their two blow holes also generate a distinctive V shaped spray.  Females reach maturity at 9 years and give birth every 3-4 years after an 11-12 month gestation. This relatively slow reproductive rate in part explains why their numbers have taken so long to recover.

The calving season runs between July and August, and females are known to return to their own birth spots to give birth themselves.  In Warrnambool on Victoria’s southwest coast a fourth calf was recently spotted, making this year a bumper season. This follows a year in which concerns were felt when no females returned to birth in the area. 

This year, they've really made up for it," says Victoria’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning senior biodiversity officer Mandy Watson.

Southern rights are renowned for their impressive displays of breaching and headstands, making them a favourite with whale watchers. At Point Ann on the south coast of Western Australia a rare almost white calf has been seen frolicking among a group of around 15 mothers and babies.

While the recent births are welcome additions, with regular visitors to Australasian waters numbering around 3,500 out of a global population of around 12,000 animals, the southern right is unlikely to be taken off the endangered list anytime soon.

"We've got a really small population …, so they've got a long way to go before they're recovered from commercial whaling," Ms Watson says.

Researchers in Victoria have organised a crowd-sourced identification program using the animals’ distinctive facial markings to identify 300 individuals that are then photographed and tracked. Reported sightings are on the increase, and with an annual population growth of around 7%, this year’s baby boom contributes to a real sense of hope for the recovery and long-term survival of these spectacular animals.

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Positive Environment News has been compiled using publicly available information. Planet Ark does not take responsibility for the accuracy of the original information and encourages readers to check the references before using this information for their own purposes.


Rebecca                                           Gilling
Author: Rebecca Gilling

After 30 years as an actor, Rebecca joined Planet Ark as our public spokesperson and Audio/Visual Projects Manager in 2002. She shares her passion for the environment, society and organisational change for sustainability with the team at Planet Ark. Being great with people and passionate about what she does makes Rebecca ideal for her role as Deputy CEO working alongside Paul Klymenko.

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