Surely one of the most riveting sights in nature is a breaching whale; when it thrusts three quarters of its huge body out of the water, pivots onto its side and then crashes back into the sea. Few people are aware that this privilege may never have been experienced today.
Whale hunting in the 18th and 19th centuries had devastating effects on whale populations, driving them almost to extinction and particularly so the southern right. It was so named as it was the “right” whale to harpoon as it floated after being harpooned and yielded vast quantities of oil. From 1785 to 1805, it is estimated that 12,000 were harpooned off the South African coast alone. In fact when this species was formally protected by the International Whaling Commission, in 1935, it is estimated that there only around 50 in existence in the waters off South Africa.
While several countries continue to decimate the oceans whales, most notably Japan, today the overall picture has changed and the tide has turned for these leviathan beauties. Even though the current southern right population is only one sixth of what it was in the 18th century, it is happily growing at a rate of 7% per annum and currently it is estimated that there are around 3600 in S.A. waters and 10,000 in total.
The scientific name for the Southern Right is Eubalaena Australis. Eu – the Greek for right, balaena – Latin for whale and Australis -Latin for south. They can be identified by the unique pattern of the callosities, which are whitish, wart-like roughened skin on their heads and also by their unique pigmentation.
Although they are apparently moving more westward and up to Namibia in increasing numbers, thousands can be seen off the east coast from May to December. Knysna’s waters teem with these sentient creatures during this time and sightings of these whales are seen daily on Ocean Odyssey’s Close Encounter Whale Watching tours.
If you have the privilege of seeing a Southern Right breaching, sailing, lobtailing and spyhopping and you observe their curiosity and playfulness towards other species, including humans, you can truly count your lucky stars that worldwide conservation efforts have paid off so positively.