The southern right whale is one of Tasmania’s rarest mammals, and one of the largest, with adults weighing up to 80 tons. Once abundant in Tasmania during their annual northern migration, numbers were decimated by the shore-based whaling industry that formed the backbone of the Tasmanian economy during the early 1800s. With the south-east Australian population now slowly recovering, monitoring the status and trends of southern right whales in Tasmanian waters is a key focus for the Marine Conservation Program. Investigating habitat use and current threats is helping to ensure Tasmania is once again a safe haven for this Endangered species.
It was only two short years after the colonists settled the shores of the River Derwent in 1803 that the first of what would be 60 whaling stations were established on Tasmanian shores, such was the frenzied response to the abundance of southern right whales (Eubalaena australis
) which frequented the state's coastal waters during the winter months. Over the next 70 years, 7,745 right whales were recorded as being killed in Tasmania, half of them in four peak years from 1837 to 1840. In 1839 alone, a staggering 1,064 right whales were killed. Added to these were inevitably many more which were wounded but eluded capture, or simply were not included on official tallies.
From a southern hemisphere population of 70,000-160,000 individuals prior to the whaling era, by the 1920s the population was reduced to as few as 300 individuals, only about 60 of which would have been mature breeding females. Following the extinction of the commercial right whale industry, and the species' international protection in 1934, their numbers very slowly recovered until they were once again the victim of whaling fleets, this time illegal Soviet Union offshore fleets. In areas just 200 nm south of Tasmania, these vessels killed at least 78 right whales, including 43 in March 1970.
It is only in recent years that we can reliably expect to see southern right whales reappear in their ancestral breeding grounds around Tasmania, albeit only a very small proportion of their original numbers.
Southern right whales can be reliably seen in Tasmania between May and November each year as they migrate north from their high latitude feeding grounds to warmer waters to give birth and mate. Some animals will simply travel through Tasmanian waters to breeding aggregation off the Australian mainland, whilst a proportion will remain in Tasmania throughout the season. Sheltered waters on the east coast of Tasmania provide the best places to spot southern right whales, including
- Binalong Bay
- Great Oyster Bay
- Adventure Bay, Bruny Island
- Frederick Henry Bay
- Marion Bay
- Recherche Bay.
Southern right whale in Adventure Bay, Bruny Island.
Marine Conservation Program conducts annual monitoring of this species, in efforts to better understand, and so better protect these whales while around our shores. With a substantial increase in Tasmania's human population over time, and a significantly depleted number of right whales in Tasmania today, the program has identified new threats that are impacting these whales: entanglement in fishing gear, and disturbance by vessels approaching too closely.
A distinctive feature of southern right whales is the presence of whitish 'callosities' on the rostrum, chin and lower jaw. These are formed as roughened patches of keratinised skin and colonised by cyamids (small crustaceans known as 'whale lice').
Callosities are present at birth and persist with minor variation through life, such that individual southern right whales can be identified by their unique callosity pattern – much like our own fingerprints.
The unique pattern of callosities (white barnacle-like features) on a southern right whale's head allow identification of individual animals.
A continued long-term focus on the status of southern right whales in Tasmania is essential at this early and critical period in their recovery, and a key component of the Marine Conservation Program's annual monitoring involves the collection of aerial photographs of individual whales. Identifying individuals allows us to examine individual movements between different areas and different years which, over time, assists in identifying important habitat and helps build an understanding of the conservation status of the south-eastern Australian population. Images are contributed to the
Australasian Right Whale Photo Identification Catalogue
Where possible, we also aim to collect genetic samples from some whales to identify their stock structure, as it appears that the remnant south-east Australian population is distinct and recovering more slowly compared to other populations.
Please report sightings of southern right whales
To help facilitate the collection of photographs of individuals, please report all sightings to the Whale Hotline (0427 WHALES) – rapid reporting of location and direction of travel provides the best chance for success.