Southern Right Whale Click to enlarge image
Southern right whale (Peninsula Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina) Image: Michaël CATANZARITI

Fast Facts

  • Classification
  • Size Range
    17 m long; 80 - 90 tonnes weight.


The Southern Right Whale was called a 'right whale' as it was the right whale to catch because of its meat and high oil content.


The Southern Right Whale is a large black stocky whale that has a number of features making identification relatively easy. It is the only large whale that lacks a dorsal fin. It has short blunt paddle-shaped flippers and the broad head carries a number of white callosities (raised rough patches of skin) that form individual identifiable pattern. This latter feature enables researchers to gather vital life history information on this species.

The Southern Right Whale may grow to 18 m in length and is black, dark brown or grey, with some individuals having white patches on their head and back. Newborn calves travel alongside the mother and are white or grey. Individuals can be recognised by the patches of raised warty skin (callosities) on the top of their head and chin.

There are two main types of whale - baleen whales and toothed whales. The Southern Right Whale is a baleen whale. All baleen whales have two blowholes.

Similar species

The Southern Right Whale's distinctive appearance combined with its slow moving behaviour make it difficult to confuse with any other species.


The Southern Right Whale lives in coastal waters and oceans.


The Southern Right Whale inhabits the southern and sub-antarctic oceans except during the winter breeding season. During this breeding season the whales migrate to warmer temperate waters around the southern parts of the African, South American and Australian land masses.


The Southern Right Whale can be seen along Sydney's coastline from June to August as it travels north to breed in warmer waters.

Feeding and diet

The Southern Right Whale is a baleen whale and sieves plankton, usually copepods or krill, from the water through the large baleen plates in its mouth. These whales do not undertake the spectacular feeding displays of the Humpback Whale. Instead, they swim with a steady open-mouthed movement through prey swarms skimming out the food.

Life history cycle

Calving is thought to occur only every three to five years. A single young is born after a gestation period of 12 months and within a year, the calf is weaned and independent.

Conservation status

The Southern Right Whale was once abundant in the waters of southern Australia but numbers were drastically reduced during intensive whaling in the 1800s. It was called a 'right whale' as it was the right whale to catch because of its meat and high oil content. Its habit of lingering in bays and sheltered coastal areas made it an easy target so much so that it had virtually disappeared by the beginning of the 20th century.

Whaling continued in Australia until 1978 and a world moratorium on whaling was declared in 1986. All marine mammals in Australia are protected and the Southern Right Whale has made a slow recovery. Fortunately, with strong protection, its numbers are gradually increasing and the species is returning to most of its former range.


  • Baker, A. N. 1999. Whales and Dolphins of Australia and New Zealand: an identification guide. Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, Australia.
  • Bryden, M., Marsh, H. and Shaughnessy, P. 1998. Dugongs, Whales, Dolphins and Seals. A guide to the sea mammals of Australasia. Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, Australia.
  • Menkhorst, P. 2001. A Field Guide to Mammals of Australia. Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Australia.
  • Reeves, R. R., Stewart, B. S., Clapham, P. J. and Powell, J. A. 2002. National Audubon Society Guide to Marine Mammals of the World. Chanticleer Press, Inc New York, USA.

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