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Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis)

Status | Taxonomy | Species Description | Habitat | Distribution |
Population Trends | Threats | Conservation Efforts | Regulatory Overview |
Key Documents | More Info

  southern right whale
Southern Right Whale
(Eubalaena australis)
Photo: Michaël CATANZARITI


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

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

The North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) and North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica) are other species of right whale.

Species Description

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 lbs; 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.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) This link is an external site. has identified four categories of right whale habitats:

  1. Feeding - areas with copepod and krill densities that routinely elicit feeding behavior and are visited seasonally
  2. Calving - areas routinely used for calving and neonatal nursing
  3. Nursery - aggregation area(s) where nursing females feed and suckle
  4. Breeding - locations where mating behavior leading to conception occurs

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 whale range map
Southern Right Whale Range Map
(click for larger view PDF)

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. Worldwide abundance of southern right whales in 1997 was estimated at about 7,000 (IWC, 2001). Since 1997, a number of breeding stocks have been recovering at annual rates of approximately 7 percent. At these growth rates, the 1997 population would be expected to double by 2007 (Table 1).

Substantial research programs have focused on breeding populations of right whales off the four major wintering grounds. In most cases, the estimates for population abundance and growth rates are based on data that have been collected over several decades. Data for these four wintering grounds and additional areas is summarized in the table below.

Population Estimated Abundance Estimated Growth Rate Reference
Worldwide 7,000 Unknown IWC, 2001
South Africa 3,400 7% Best et al., 2001 and 2005
Argentina 2,600 7% IWC, 2001; Cooke and Rowntree, 2003
Australia 2,400 7% Bannister, 2001 and 2007
Sub-antarctic New Zealand 900 Unknown Patenaude, 2002
Tristan da Cunha 226 Unknown IWC, 2001
Brazil 315 (individuals identified) Unknown Groch et al, 2005
Uruguay 149 (individuals identified) Unknown Costa et al, 2003
Mainland New Zealand 30-50 Unknown Stewart and Todd, 2001; Suisted and Neale, 2004
Peru/Chile 50 Unknown IWC, 2007 and IWC, 2007b
Namibia Unknown Unknown  
Mozambique Unknown Unknown  
South Georgia Unknown Unknown  
Table 1: Abundance and growth rate estimates for populations of southern right whales.

Ship strikes and entanglements
Collisions with vessels and entanglements in fishing gear are the leading causes of human-induced mortality of southern right whales. Since 1983, 23 ship strikes have been recorded for southern right whales. However, because ship strikes of right whales can go undetected or unreported, it is likely the number of collisions is greater than documented. At least 60 entanglements have been recorded in the Southern Hemisphere since 1963. The majority of these entanglements occur in South Africa, Brazil, and Australia (NMFS, 2007).

Despite the current levels of ship strikes and entanglements, populations of southern right whales are recovering at three of the primary wintering grounds (Argentina, South Africa, and Australia). However, the intensity of these threats may increase as nations continue to develop their coastlines and the southern right whale returns to sections of its historic range.

Habitat degradation
A number of local activities and global processes can degrade habitat. In New Zealand, the Department of Conservation has identified coastal development as the main threat to southern right whale habitat. For example, aquaculture applications cover known right whale marine habitat and may present entanglement threats to migrating whales. In Argentina, sewage treatment facilities, fish processing plants, and industrial aluminum factories are all located along Golfo Nuevo, one of the major breeding grounds. In Namibia, three of the historic calving bays have undergone major habitat alterations as vessel traffic, coastal development, oil exploration, and marine mining have increased over the last two decades.

In addition, the IWC has recognized climate change as a threat to the recovery of whale species, and it is generally recognized that climate change will substantially alter ocean conditions and cetacean habitat. For example, climate change will be accompanied by changes in sea surface temperature, salinity, ocean circulation, and upwelling. As a result, these changes may alter food availability, migration routes, and/or reproductive rates for whales.

Other potential threats
Southern right whales may also face a number of additional threats such as chemical pollution, increased vessel traffic, and kelp gull harassment. Chemical pollutants come from a number of sources and may accumulate in the blubber of whales with deleterious impacts. Vessel traffic may increase through the growth of whale watching industries, which are well developed in South Africa, Argentina, Australia, and Brazil. In Argentina, kelp gulls have been observed feeding on the skin and blubber of right whales. Right whales respond negatively to these attacks and suffer lesions from the harassment. While these threats have been identified, there is limited data available to evaluate whether these threats are currently affecting right whale recovery.

Although commercial whaling during the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century depleted the populations of right whales throughout the Southern Hemisphere and in some areas nearly extirpated the population, whaling is not currently considered a threat to the species.

Conservation Efforts
By Country
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.

In 1996, the southern right whale was listed on the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species This link is an external site. as "Lower Risk/Conservation Dependent" (LR/CD). The LR/CD status meant that the species did not satisfy the IUCN Red List criteria for threatened status (Critically Endangered, Endangered, or Vulnerable) but that it was the subject of a conservation program, the cessation of which would result in the species becoming threatened within a period of five years. The LR/CD category has been eliminated from the IUCN listing system, and, as of 2007, the IUCN's Cetacean Red List Authority is in the process of reassessing the southern right whale.

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.

Key Documents
(All documents are in PDF format.)

Title Federal Register Date
5-Year Review n/a 10/23/2007
History and Status of E. australis n/a 12/01/1999
ESA Listing Rule 35 FR 8491 06/02/1970

More Information


  • 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. URL:
  • 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.

Updated: December 12, 2012

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