The Southern Right Whale
Famous for their elegance and majestic nature, whales make the ocean that much more incredible and fascinating. Known for their mournful songs and playful nature, they have always drawn enthusiasts and passers by alike whenever they make their way along the Western Cape coastline.
As stunning as this species is, they have not always been a protected species, which has lead to many of them being killed off by ruthless hunters that use them for their bones and blubber. These beautiful creatures are slow swimmers and cannot always dive for long periods of time, making them easy prey, which is why they were named the "Right Whale" to hunt. Even though commercial whaling has been banned for over 20 years, people continue to hunt them, causing many of their species to become endangered. Our most famous whale, the Southern Right, is one of these endangered species, with only 3000 in the ocean to date.
All whales communicate using sonar, clicking, grunting and whistling sounds, all of which act as a means of echolocation. Because of this, their calls can be heard miles away under and above water, and is their main source of navigation during migration periods. As well as echolocation, whales are also known for slamming their tails against the ocean's surface that creates a loud splashing sound (known as lob-tailing). Also, breaching is thought to be both a form of communication and a way to see above the ocean's line in low water visibility. However, although extensive research has been done on the communicative methods of these majestic mammals, very little is actually known.
When a calf is born it is between 5 and 6 meters in length. This may seem large but after approximately 10 years they have tripled in size, reaching lengths of 16.5 meters. Females are generally larger than the males as they are usually the matriarch of any one herd.
The southern right whale has a circumpolar distribution and inhabits sub-Antarctic waters between about 30° and 55° South. The whales migrate South during the Summer months when supplies of krill are more prolific, and North during Winter and Spring to mate, calve and rear their young. They appear around the South African coastline from May to December. They can be seen interacting in the sheltered bays and coves close inshore and near river mouths. They seem to favour Hermanus' waters because of their unique warmth, which is ideal for birthing their calves.
These massive creatures have been known to live to around 90 to 100 years old but are believed to have the ability to live to almost 150 in ideal conditions.
The gestation period of a Southern Right Wale is 12 months, with the calf being born tail first. The newborn is aided in breaching the surface by being gently nudged by its mother, where it takes its first breath of air. Approximately 30 minutes later the calf has learnt to swim. For the next year of the calf's existence, it is inseparable from the mother, with the baby living off of the mother's milk. After the allotted period of time the calf will be able to fend for itself and begin its way into adulthood. Most females can birth one calf every 1 to 3 years.
Although they are mammals and therefore birth live young, they have very little hair, most of which disappears through the years. During these early stages of infancy, the mother protects her young with a stunning fierceness that is commendable for such a peaceful creature. This is no more evident than when the calves are in their first few weeks and are at their most vulnerable. A mother will go to great lengths to protect her offspring from the dangerous environment that is their home.
The Southern Right Whales are “filter feeders”, which means that they obtain their food through filtering massive mouthfuls of water through their baleen plates. Baleen plates are the whale's version of teeth, which consist of a flexible, hair like plate that is made of keratin (the same substance as fingernails) and can be up to 3 metres in length. Plankton and other small crustaceans and sea life are constantly being ingested, with the average whale eating around 400 kg (around 880 pounds) per day.
Swimming and Other Activities
Whales swim by moving their tails up and down and as such are slower swimmers than their non-mammal counterparts. However, they make up for the slow swimming with amazing stunts and tactics:
Whales breach by leaping out of the water and twirling around before falling back into the water. This is done for play, to loosen irritations on the skin such as skin parasites or to get an aerial view of the surrounds. It is also thought that this is a less predominant way of communication but this has not yet been proven.
Fluking is when a whale raises its tail out of the water either before it begins a dive, which can last up to 30 minutes.
Lob-tailing occurs when the whale sticks its tail out of the water and repeatedly slaps it onto the water's surface. Like breaching, this is thought to be a means of communication between whales.
Whenever you see a plume of misty and water jet out of the blowhole on the top of a whale's head it is known as spouting. Southern Right Whales have two blow holes, causing the jet of water and mist to be v-shaped. When a whale spouts, it usually lasts around 1 to 2 seconds. In this short time they have both expelled the air in their lungs and filled their lungs with new air (around 5000 litres).
When a whale is merely floating in the water and making no attempt to move, it is known as logging.
This is so called because whales use this technique to look around or “spy” on its surroundings above water.
Whale Watching Tips
- You can spot whales by looking for white patches in the ocean where the waves break on their bodies. When they breach they also cause a huge white splash. Also, with they spout, you will be able to spy the plume of water.
- The whale reserve along our coastline means that you will be able to have many sightings of the whales in season (from June to November).
- Be patient – once you've spotted a whale you'll be able to watch it travel as long as it doesn't dive.
- Whales can be seen from both land and sea, so if you get seasick make sure to use one of the many paths available in the Hermanus area for your viewing.
- To enjoy the whales from the sea, please follow this link to our Activities and Operators.
Some Interesting Whale Facts
- Beluga whales don't chew their food. They swallow it whole.
- In zoos, Beluga whales eat about 2.5% to 3% of their body weight per day. Male Beluga whales weigh about 3,307 pounds and females about 2,998 pounds. They reach their full size at about 10 years old.
- The head of the Southern Right is large and covered with wart-like bumps called callosities. These differ in size and position and are often used to identify individuals.
- Orcas have good eyesight both underwater and above the surface.
- A thick layer of fat, or blubber, helps an orca stay warm even in icy waters.
- The largest male orca ever recorded was 32 feet (10 meters) long. It weighed 22,000 pounds (10,000 kilograms).
- Male orcas average 19 to 22 feet (6 to 7 meters) in length; females average 16 to 19 feet (5 to 6 meters) long.
- Male orcas weigh, on average, 8,000 to 12,000 pounds (3,600 to 5,500 kilograms).
- Killer whales are nicknamed “wolves of the sea” as they hunt in packs.
- The humpback whale has the longest flippers of any mammal, up to one third of the body length.
- The Southern Right Whale is called such because it was the ‘right’ whale to hunt and floats when it is dead; it is rich in oil and baleen and is relatively slow moving.
- Female Southern Right Whales calve every three years; one year of gestation, one year to raise the calf and one year of rest.
- South Africa doesn’t allow boats closer than 300 metres from a whale without a permit and 50 metres with a permit; however this doesn’t prevent the whales from moving closer to the boats. Approaching whales is done quietly, without motors and at ‘no wake speed’.