Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis)


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Southern right whales are large “baleen” whales. Adults are generally between 45 and 55 feet (12.5-15.5 m) in length and can weigh up to 60 tons (120,000 pounds; 54,431 kg); females are larger than males. Calves are 13-15 feet (4.0-4.5 m) in length at birth. Distinguishing features for right whales include a stocky body, generally black coloration (although some individuals have white patches on their undersides), no dorsal fin, a large head (about 1/4 of the body length), strongly bowed margin of the lower lip, and callosities (raised patches of roughened skin) on the head region. Two rows of long (less than 8 feet (2.5 m) in length), dark baleen plates hang from the upper jaw, with about 225 plates on each side. The tail is broad, black, and deeply notched with a smooth trailing edge.

Life History
Females give birth to their first calf at about 8-10 years old. Gestation and weaning both last approximately 1 year. Females produce calves every 3 to 4 years. It is thought that right whales live at least 50 years, but there are few data on their longevity; closely related species may live over 100 years.

The primary food source for southern right whales is zooplankton (e.g., copepods and krill). Unlike other baleen whales, right whales are skimmers: they feed by removing prey from the water using baleen while moving with their mouth open through a patch of zooplankton.

This species is classified as LEAST CONCERN according to the IUCN's Red List.
This species is classified as LEAST CONCERN according to the IUCN’s Red List.


ESA Endangered – throughout its range
MMPA Depleted – throughout its range
CITES Appendix I – throughout its range

Species Description

up to 60 tons (120,000 pounds or 54,431 kg)
generally between 45 and 55 feet (12.5 – 15.5 m), females are larger than males
Distinguishing features for right whales include a stocky body, generally black coloration, no dorsal fin, a large head (about 1/4 of the body length), strongly bowed margin of the lower lip, and callosities (raised patches of roughened skin) on the head region.
few data on their longevity, it is thought they live at least 50 years as closely related species may live over 100 years
zooplankton such as copepods and krill
right whales skim feed, unlike other baleen whales, and move through patches of zooplankton on the surface with their mouth open.


In general, the feeding habitats of right whales occur in higher latitudes where cold, nutrient rich waters generate large amounts plankton. Calving, nursing, and breeding habitats occur in lower latitudes where warm, shallow waters are favorable for reproduction. Breeding areas are not known for any population.


Southern right whales occur throughout the southern hemisphere from temperate to polar latitudes (20° and 60° S. latitude). Within this range, they migrate between low-latitude winter breeding grounds and higher latitude feeding grounds. Southern right whales feed from spring to fall, and also in winter in certain areas. For much of the year, their distribution is strongly correlated to the distribution of their prey. The location of feeding grounds is not known with certainty but the IWC has identified the following areas:

  • Brazil, False Banks, and Falkland Islands (30º – 50º S.)
  • South Georgia and Shag Rocks (53º S.)
  • Tristan da Cunha (40º S.)
  • South of 50º S.
  • Antarctic Peninsula (60 -70º S.)

The distribution of winter breeding, calving, and nursing grounds is known with greater certainty. Scientists have identified four major wintering areas:

  1. South Africa
  2. Argentina
  3. Australia
  4. sub-Antarctic New Zealand

In South Africa, right whales are predominantly found along the Cape coast between Muizenberg and Woody Cape. In Argentina, the major nursery and calving grounds are located along Península Valdés. In Australia, the main aggregations are found along the southern coasts of Western Australia, South Australia, and Tasmania. Within sub-Antarctic New Zealand, the two primary winter concentrations occur off the Auckland and Campbell Islands.

Southern right whales also occur off mainland New Zealand, Uruguay, Peru, Chile, Namibia, Madagascar, and Mozambique. However, less is known about right whales in these regions as their populations are smaller, sightings are less frequent, and little research has been done.

Population Trends

Worldwide, the historical abundance of southern right whales is estimated at 60,000. In 1997, worldwide abundance of southern right whales was estimated at about 7,000 (IWC, 2001).


  • ship strikes
  • entanglements
  • habitat degradation, such as
    • coastal development
    • aquaculture
    • industrial facilities
    • vessel traffic
    • oil exploration
    • marine mining
    • climate change: sea surface temperature, salinity, ocean circulation, and upwelling, which may alter food availability, migration routes, and/or reproductive rates for whales
  • chemical pollution
  • kelp gull harassment


  • Whaling, during the 18th-early 20th century

RELATIVE SPECIES: Northern right whale, pygmy right whale and bowhead whale.


NEIGHBORING SPECIES: Pygmy right whale, Humpback, dwarf minke, antarctic minke, sei, fin, blue, sperm whale.

PREDATORS: Humans, Kelp Gulls

THREATS: Birds will attack the whales and feed on their blubber. Habitat degradation, ship strikes, entanglement.

DIET: Copepods and occasionally krill

MANNER OF FEEDING: Skim feeding.

BEHAVIOR: “sailing” raise flukes 90 degrees to the air and sail downwind, and repeat. Lobtailing and breaching is also common. Rolling on back with 1 or both flippers out of the water. Spy hopping. Travel in small groups. Very protective of calves.

REPRODUCTION: Females give birth every 3-5 years. Gestation is 12 months. Calves are weaned at 6-12 months. Males are very competitive because they have the largest testes (1 ton) in the animal kingdom. Females will mate with more than one male at a time.

LIFE SPAN: 70+ years

Conservation Efforts

Conservation efforts for southern right whales occur under a variety of federal and state laws, regulations, policies, plans, and strategies throughout the Southern Hemisphere. For example, the species is listed as endangered under the Australian Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, as nationally endangered under the New Zealand Department of Conservation Threat Classification System, as a natural monument by the Argentine National Congress, and as a State Natural Monument under the Brazilian National Endangered Species List.

The protection, conservation, and management of southern right whales is also addressed by the Antarctic Living Marine Resources Act (Australia), Marine Mammal Protection Act (New Zealand), New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy, Marine Living Resources Act (South Africa), and the Biodiversity Act (South Africa). For details on these efforts, see the 2007 Southern Right Whale 5-Year Review [pdf].

At the international level, conservation efforts are promoted by the IWC, Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS), the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

In 1935, southern right whales received international protection from commercial whaling. The IWC has since designated right whales as a “Protection Stock” and sets their commercial catch at zero. In addition to international protections, commercial whaling of southern right whales is prohibited by various state and national laws. While illegal catches of southern right whales have occurred in the Southern Hemisphere, none have been documented in the last thirty years.

Under the CMS, the southern right whale is listed as an Appendix I species, meaning it is threatened with extinction. As a result, nations are obligated or strive to protect, conserve, and restore the species and their habitat and mitigate any threats or impacts.

UNESCO inscribed the New Zealand sub-Antarctic Islands and Península Valdés breeding grounds as World Heritage Sites in 1998 and 1999, respectively. Designation as a World Heritage Site does not automatically confer protections for southern right whales; rather it encourages management agencies to address issues that adversely impact these sites.

Regulatory Overview

The southern right whale is listed as endangered throughout its range under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and is listed as “depleted”throughout its range under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

Internationally, southern right whales receive several protections from the IWC. In 1935, right whales received international protection when the 1931 Geneva Convention for the Regulation of Whaling entered into force and prohibited the taking or killing of right whales by all nations bound by the Convention. In addition, the IWC has designated two ocean sanctuaries for the conservation of whales, the Indian Ocean Sanctuary and the Southern Ocean Sanctuary. These sanctuaries prohibit all commercial whaling. Lastly, southern right whales are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). Under CITES, southern right whales are listed as an Appendix I species, meaning the species is threatened with extinction and trade is allowed only in exceptional circumstances.


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Cetacea
Family: Balaenidae
Genus: Eubalaena
Species: australis


  • Bannister, J. 2001. Status of southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) off Australia. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management (Special Issue) 2: 103-110.
  • Bannister, J.L. 2007. Southern right whale aerial survey and photoidentification, Southern Australia, 2006. Final annual report submitted to the Department of the Environment and Water Resources, Australia.
  • Best, P.B., A. Brandão and D.S. Butterworth. 2001. Demographic parameters of southern right whales off South Africa. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management (Special Issue) 2: 161-169.
  • Best, P.B., A. Brandao, D.S. Butterworth, D.S. 2005. Updated estimates of demographic parameters for southern right whales. Paper SC/57/BRG2 presented to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission.
  • Cooke, J.G. and V.J. Rowntree. 2003. Analysis of inter-annual variation in reproductive success of South Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena australis) from photo-identifications of calving females observed off Península Valdés, Argentina, during 1971-2000.
  • Costa, P., R. Praderi, M. Piedra and P. Franco-Fraguas. 2003. Sightings of southern right whales, Eubalaena australis, off Uruguay. Latin American Journal of Aquatic Mammals 4(2): 157-161.
  • Groch, K., J. Palazzo, P. Flores, F. Ardler and M. Fabian. 2005. Recent rapid increase in the right whale (Eubalaena australis) population off southern Brazil. Latin American Journal of Aquatic Mammals 4(1): 41-47.
  • International Whaling Commission. 2001. Report of the Workshop on the Comprehensive Assessment of Right Whales: A Worldwide Comparison. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management (Special Issue) 2: 1-60.
  • International Whaling Commission. 2007. Report of the Scientific Committee. Annex Q. Progress Reports. J. Cetacean Res. Manage. (Suppl.) 9:353-400.
  • International Whaling Commission. 2007b. Report of the Scientific Committee. Report to the International Whaling Commission IWC/59/Rep 1.
  • NMFS. 2007. Southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) 5-Year Review: Summary and Evaluation [pdf].
  • Patenaude, N.J. 2002. Demographic and genetic status of southern right whales at the Auckland Islands. PhD Thesis. University of Auckland, New Zealand.
  • Stewart, R. and B. Todd. 2001. A note on observations of southern right whales at Campbell Island, New Zealand. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management (Special Issue) 2: 117-120.
  • Suisted, R. and D. Neale. 2004. Department of Conservation Marine Mammal Action Plan for 2005-2010. Department of Conservation, Wellington, NZ.


  • Right whales are the rarest of all large whale species and among the rarest of all marine mammal species.
  • Right whale populations were historically severely depleted by commercial whaling.
  • Adult southern right whales are 50 feet (15.2 m) long, and can weigh up to 60 tons (120,000 pounds; 54,431 kg).