I’ve seen my first southern right whale of the season

It wasn’t doing anything exciting, just hanging around on the surface- and it took me a while to identify it, too often in the past I have been fooled by floating debris, such as huge rafts of kelp and it was early evening with the setting sun casting shadows on the water.
Then, after an eye watering stint of staring- poof, a tell-tale v-shaped puff of water- a Southern Right Whale.

It was just laying in the water, resting, about 150m off Sunny Cove  Station. By no means the most exciting sighting ever, but the first for me of the season.

The Southern Right Whale

Southern Right Whales are transient visitors to our waters, arriving in late autumn and departing in early spring. Peak numbers tend to be in August and September. The 15m mammals come very close into shore, sometimes so close that they appear to be beached on rocks. What they are actually doing is rubbing parasites off themselves.

This behaviour makes the Cape Point Peninsula one of the best places on earth to view whales- in August and September a drive around the Cape Point virtually guarantees you a sighting, from the main road! No hours in a sea being sick. I am not exaggerating when I say that at times they are so close that you can smell their breath.

The Southern Right Whale is a living testament to our shameful exploitation of these intelligent animals. Their very name derives from the fact that they were easy to hunt, floated when killed had all the right amounts of valuable resources, such as whale fat. Hunted to the brink of extinction there are now believed to be 10,000 Southern Right Whales swimming our oceans.

Southern Right Whales are baleen whales- they use sieve like mouths to sift the ocean for krill, small shrimp like creatures. They are very easy to identify, once spotted, by their distinctive double blow, which comes out in a v-shape. Other features are a lack of dorsal fin and white protuberances on their heads called callosities, which are white because of large colonies of whale lice that anchor to them.

A southern right whale can grow to 15m in length and weigh up to 47 tonnes.

Southern Right Whale behaviour

This is the fun bit- the southern right whales seem to be here to play! Their behaviour certainly suggests so!

The whales are on a migration, the Cape Point Peninsula is a convenient stop off on the way. They just birthed in northern waters (though the blubber of a southern right whale prevents it crossing the tropical waters of the equator) and are migrating back down to winter feeding grounds in the Antarctic Ocean.

When they stop off here they exhibit all manner of behaviour that are at times interpreted in all kinds of ways, from communication (it is believed that a 47 tonne animal belly flopping can be heard a long way away) to parasite removal and everything in between. I personally think that most of it is fun to the whales- their last hurrah before the serious business of harvesting krill in freezing cold, turbulent waters begins.

At the peak of whale season on the Cape Point Peninsula you can expect all sorts of high jinx. Southern Right Whales can be seen breeching (where they swim powerfully from depth and rise high out of the water before plunging back with a huge splash),  lobtailing (which involves raising the tale out the water before slapping it down on the surface- believed to be a form of communication), spyhopping (the whale lifts its head out of the water to have a look around), fluking (where the way turns tail before diving) and the uniquely southern right whale activity of sailing, where the whale puts its tail out of the water and uses it as a sail.

The future of the Southern Right Whale

Thankfully we have woken up to the threat we pose to these amazing creatures. Now only a handful of die hards are still actively hunting whales, mainly Norway and Japan. Numbers are recovering and it seems that the populations of Southern Right Whales are starting to get back to a sustainable level.

Tourism is certainly the salvation of whales, if people want to see them then they will also learn about them, which in turn makes them care. Also, if a large number of people depend on them being alive in order to make a living there will be a much larger pressure to save them.

Or course, there are other dangers to the whales other than hunting. Many are killed, especially in high traffic areas, by large ships. General pollution levels and destruction of food sources and habitat are also a huge threat to whale populations. It also remains to be seen what effect climate change will have on krill, which in turn will endanger the whales.

For now we can enjoy the company of the Southern Right Whale, all the way until October, so happy spotting.

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