Southern Right Whales – The Great Comeback

Southern-Right Whale


Figures recently released from the University of Cape Town (UCT) have revealed that 2011 was yet another fantastic year for the Southern Right Whales that visit the country each winter. It appears that the population continues to increase at a rate of about 6.8% a year, very close to the biological maximum, with mature cows producing a calf every three years on average. South Africa now has the largest breeding population of Southern Right Whales of any of the southern hemisphere countries.

In the 18th and 19th Century the Southern Right Whale was hunted into virtual oblivion due to the high proportion of oil and baleen within its body. Its very name indicates that it was considered the ‘right’ whale to hunt by sailors. In 1935, southern right whales received international protection from commercial whaling. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has since designated right whales as a “Protection Stock” and sets their commercial catch at zero. What has followed is one the great conservation stories of our time.

The rate of increase in the population measured at UCT this year theoretically leads to a doubling of the population every decade. The Iziko-South African Museum in Cape Town operates an annual aerial survey of the southern rights between Nature’s Valley and Muizenberg, which backs up the theory with documented sightings. Beginning in 1971, it is one of the longest continuous surveys of any whale population in the world.

There have been fears that the warmer surface water temperatures that have been encountered in recent years, may affect whale breeding. This does not appear to be happening although the aerial survey is indicating that the whales breeding range may be shifting. They arrive in South Africa consistently around the end of May before departing back to the Antarctic in November. Whilst they are still arriving on time, the bulk of the population has been shifting away from the east of the country to the west of Cape Agulhas. This makes Hermanus, the traditional whale watching capital of the country, still one of the best places to view the whales.


The town has many hotels and cliff paths, which have dramatic land-based whale watching viewpoints. The best way to view whales is still by boat however and a number of accredited operators sail from Gansbaai and Hermanus. They are permitted to approach up to 50 metres towards a whale, but the whales themselves are curious creatures and often end up approaching the boat. It is not unusual to see a whale breach on one side of the boat before dipping under the water and reappearing on the other.

The future may see not just South Africa, but also neighbouring Namibia benefit from whale tourism. The aerial survey has started identifying an increasing number of southern rights off the Namibian coastline. Because of their distinctive grey and white markings individual animals can be identified by the survey. Several of the whales seen in Namibia are known to have been born in South Africa during previous seasons. This is not so much a new behaviour in the whales but simply a re-occupation of their previous territory. In the years before mass hunting nearly killed the entire species, the west coast of Africa was part of the natural habitat. The fact they seem to be returning is yet another piece of good news for the future of the Southern Right Whale.

Please check out our website, if you are interested in doing some Southern Right whale spotting yourself. The best period for whale watching is during South Africa’s winter season from July-November. Whale watching in South Africa is a great holiday option of all ages.

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