A calm bay with sparkling waters, sunshine, and romance. Just some of the reasons we humans plan a beach holiday. Our southern right whales are no different.
Every year, southern right whales embark on a 3 000 km (1800mi) migration, (that’s a six-week cruise!), from the sub-Antarctic to the waters of the Western Cape. From June to November, they enjoy the sheltered bays off the coastline with one of the largest congregations of between 300 to 500 at De Hoop Nature Reserve. Just one of the many reasons we chose to be in this beautiful piece of the world – here you’ll find our exclusive use properties Morukuru Beach Lodge and Morukuru Ocean House.
Here to mate (the romance we mentioned) and calve, the southern rights spend time close inshore making for some of the best land-based whale watching in the world. They are easy to distinguish from the coast by their distinctive V-shaped blow and lack of a dorsal fin. By September and October, the young calves become bolder, showing more breaching behaviour and venturing further from mom. Southern rights are not very vocal but if you’ve ever heard the low bellow of a mother at her young calf moving off to explore, you can count yourself lucky.
Our guests love watching this iconic species, and they’re not the only ones. At the start of every October, they might see the annual aerial survey taking place. The University of Pretoria Mammal Research Institute Whale Unit is in its 54th year of taking photos of mothers and calves, and individual males, thus building an extensive database and knowledge of this species.
So, how do we identify whales? Southern right whales are large black whales between 14-16m in length and weigh between 40-70 tonnes. One of their most unusual features is the scattering of "callosities" on their head – rough patches of skin on which thousands of cyamids (a type of crustacean) and a few barnacles live. Each whale has a unique pattern of these callosities, like a unique fingerprint - photos are examined using digital software.
Whales also have distinctive markings. A sighting on the 2019 aerial survey was of a female with a white 7 pattern on her back – first seen in 1984 and not seen in South Africa since 2013. In this instance, she was travelling with a calf. Did you know that this species can live for 50 to 100 years?
About 3 to 6% of southern rights, generally males, are born white, which darkens to grey/brindle, but they are not albinos – the colour variation is due to a recessive gene. Calves average a whopping 4-6m in length, and 1 ton in weight at birth.
As a result of this long-term study, we know that on average, the whales used to have a three-year cycle of mate, calve, rest – gestation is twelve months. Over the last decade, this pattern has shifted to five years between birthing, attributed to food scarcity and changes in foraging. Studies also show a reduction in their body mass of 23% since the 1980s. These whales are ‘capital feeders’ fattening up prior to the migration – they can eat an incredible 600 to 1 600kg per day of krill or copepods. However, ocean warming is decreasing suitable habitats for krill to reproduce. in the lean years, the whales may not be able to undertake the migration or breed successfully.
Southern right populations are seen off the shores of Argentina and Australia. Once assumed to be distinct populations, genetic studies and satellite tagging by the Whale Unit may in time show that not to be the case. Like the journey of Cyclopia, a female tagged in Walker Bay in October 2022, who after months of feeding in the productive waters near the ice edge, moved north into the western South Atlantic Ocean crossing paths with the Argentinian whales. She has covered more than 30 000 km with her calf since leaving the coast of South Africa! You can follow the movements of 11 whales live on the Whale Unit site.
Whale numbers vary annually, with some years known as bumper years, like 2018, when over 1 000 individuals (including 532 calves) were counted along the Western Cape coast. So, what did the count for 2023 reveal? A record 1176 southern rights - including the highest number of females with calves ever recorded since 1969, at 568 doting moms.
Southern right whales have historically been doing well, with their numbers increasing at approximately 7% per annum. Worldwide it is estimated that there are around 15 000 individuals, with 6 500 associated with South Africa. Sadly, they were once the ‘right’ whale to hunt, hence their name, and this is still only 10% of the estimated population prior to whaling.
Thankfully, southern rights became internationally protected in 1935, and are now the right whale to watch. Come stay and connect with these marvellous giants of the ocean.