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What is a Southern Right Whale?

Matt Brady
Matt Brady

Southern right whales, also known as Eubalaena australis, are a type of baleen whale that dwells in the Southern hemisphere. They are one of the smaller branches of the right whale family, which includes the North Pacific right whale, Eubalaena japonica, and the North Atlantic right whale, Eubalaena glacialis. Right whales were given their name by whale hunters, who fancied the sea creatures as the easiest, and thus the right, whales to hunt. As a result, the Southern right whale and its kin were nearly hunted out of existence. Due to the decline of the whale hunting industry, and efforts to preserve them, right whales have made a slight resurgence, but low populations remain a concern.

The Southern right whale is characterized by a darkly-colored body, with a head that sports large, white callouses which, against the backdrop of the whale's dark skin, appear almost luminous. Each whale's set of callouses, or callosities, are unique, and thus serve as an easy method of identifying individual whales. Although slightly smaller on average than their kin, the Southern right whale is not small by human standards, measuring up to 59 feet (18 meters) when fully mature. They do not have dorsal fins, and what flippers they have are relatively small compared to other whales.


During centuries where whales were a hunting commodity, the Southern right whale was an unfortunate and easy target. They move slowly, are often found floating near the surface, and have a tendency to swim close to shorelines. Not only were they in high demand for the whale oil that could be harvested from them, but their baleens, or whalebones, were a trendy item in fashion garments during the late 1800s. In the 1930s, hunting for right whales was banned, a move which has helped their numbers bounce back. It was been estimated that at least 19,000 right whales were hunted and killed between 1835 and 1845.

The Southern right whale is found only in the southern hemisphere, seen most commonly in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It is known to swim as far south as Antarctica. During the winter, it can be found farther north, along the coastlines of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and South America.

Like other baleen whales, Southern right whales feed off voluminous amounts of small plankton and crustaceans, which they catch and sift through their baleen plates. To get the necessary amount of food, they must swim through dense schools of plankton with their mouths open, catching as many as possible in their baleen mesh.

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