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AFAC Independent Operational Review of the 2018-19 bushfires


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Southern right whale

Current status

[Photo of eastern quoll by S. Bryant.]

The Southern right whale is one of three whales listed as endangered under Tasmania's Threatened Species Protection Act 1995. The blue, humpback and southern right (Eubalaena australis) whales are also classified as nationally endangered under the Federal Act.

Why are these whales endangered?

These whales became endangered as a direct result of the commercial whaling industry. The first whale killed in Australian waters was a sperm whale in 1791 and in 1806 the first Australian whaling station was established at Ralph's Bay on the Derwent River near Hobart, Tasmania. By the 1900s Southern right whales were being driven to the edge of extinction. They were the first species of whale to be protected in 1935 because so few were left. Over 26,000 southern right whales had been killed in Australia and New Zealand alone.

Why are they called southern right whales?

They were called right whales by whalers because they were the right or best whales to kill. One reason for this is that their large amount of fat made them float after harpooning, so that they were easy to collect. They are also very slow swimmers and docile enough to approach. Most importantly they were full of the highly prized oil used for lighting, heating, cosmetics and crayons.

What do we know about our endangered whales?

All three of our endangered whales are baleen whales. Water full of tiny marine invertebrates is strained through these baleen plates. The invertebrates (krill) are left behind and swallowed. Swarms of these krill congregate in Antarctica over summer. This attracts baleen whales there. They migrate north from Antartica before winter and can be seen off Tasmania's coastline from about May onwards and then again when they return south for the Antarctic summer.


Individual outhern right whales can be identified by the size, shape and position of the callosities on their heads. Callosities are the lumps made from the living fauna of barnacles, whale lice and parasitic worms which seem to attach to these whales almost immediately after birth. Every year aerial photos of whales passing Tasmania, Southern and Western Australia are taken. These potentially provide a great deal of information on the species. We have learnt that mature females breed every three years and prefer to calve in sheltered bays. Another item hot off the press is that a male first photographed in Western Australia in 1989 as a calf has also been photographed at Swansea Tasmania in 1994. This gives us the first definite link between whales seen travelling past Tasmania and those reaching W.A.

What is being done?

There has been a ban or moratorium on all commercial whaling since 1986. All whales are wholly protected in Australian waters, which extend 200km offshore, and also within the Southern whale sanctuary. It is illegal to hunt these three whales even in international waters, although some countries still kill certain numbers of whales for supposedly scientific investigations. There is a National Action Plan completed in 1995 which identifies and implements actions required to save these whales worldwide.

What can you do?

There are still many threats to our whales even without hunting. They are very slow to grow and reproduce and their numbers are very low. Southern right whales may number just a few thousand worldwide. They only produce one calf every three years and take about ten years to reach breeding age. We need to minimise all the threats to their survival.

Threats include things like collisions with boats, entanglement in drift nets, swallowing of marine debris such as plastics and oil spills. Marine pollution is a long term threat. Another is whale watching. It is important to know and follow whale watching guidelines, so that you do not put yourself or the whales at risk. For example: never drive a boat within 100m of a whale, also divers with tanks should not approach whales in the water as the tanks upset them.

A whale Hotline is available to report sightings and strandings. The Phone number is 0427 WHALES (0427 942 537).

Recommended further reading

Australian National Parks and Wildlfe Service 1989: Whale Watching Guidelines.

Watson L. 1981. Sea Guide To Whales of the World. Hutchinson Group.

[Back to List of Threatened Mammals]